Jordan Ellis has directed music videos for indie darlings Thee Oh Sees and Liars , as well as the profanely funny mockumentary web series The Alpine Village People. Sadly, the title polka band, depicted in the show as a hard-partying, constantly touring set of malcontents, broke up before Ellis could finish the series, but what’s out there richly deserves to be seen.
His passion project, however, remains the crime drama “Guns Before Butter,” co-starring Lawrence Monoson of “The Last American Virgin” fame and the excellent Kim Gillingham, who performed in Paul Thomas Anderson’s acclaimed early short “Cigarettes & Coffee.” It was shot guerilla-style in 1993 under the title “When Tomorrow Hits,” named for the moody Mudhoney song; Ellis intended to play it over the end credits, and received permission from the band.
Monoson plays a low-life bisexual hustler/thief, who’s so over-his-head he can’t scrape together a mere $350 to pay back a gun dealer. This is one of several sharp details that distinguish “When Tomorrow Hits” from films that–however unintentionally–end up glamorizing poor people. Unlike, say, Woody Allen’s many portraits of so-called “struggling” New York actresses who live in brownstones, this film’s characters hang out in authentically ramshackle environments.
Monoson becomes smitten with an aspiring actress (Gillingham) who does housework for a rich power couple. (The film is ahead of its time, because Monoson angrily categorizes this duo as part of the “one-percent,” a phrase that is now embedded in the political lexicon.) Gillingham is initially disgusted with the greasy Monoson and his dim-witted sidekick, aptly named Zoid (played by the superb Tracy Fraim), but softens after a fun target-shooting outing, at which she proves to have the best aim. Upon learning that Gillingham’s employers are hosting a shindig for a wealthy cult guru and his devotees, the three misfits plan to rob them all and split the proceeds. In a darkly hilarious sequence, they do a practice run of the burglary, with an acquaintance of Monoson’s playing the mark; midway through this rehearsal, however, the mark is killed in a drive-by shooting. Naturally, the job itself is a disaster, and the film ends on a satisfyingly downbeat, inconclusive note.
Unfortunately–as is the case with far too many talented indie directors–“When Tomorrow Hits” wound up in the hands of a shoddy distribution company, which sold an incomplete version to territories around the world. (Ellis and his editor had not finished the soundtrack nor several post-production tasks). Bootlegged European DVDs of this version–to Ellis’ chagrin–still pop up on Amazon and eBay.
It took years to prepare a lawsuit against the distributors, but Ellis finally retrieved the film in the early 2000s. By then, however, several sequences had become dated. For instance, there is the scene where Monoson and his pal shoot up a poster of Ross Perot, who was the ultimate symbol of corrupt wealth in the early 1990s, but a virtual non-entity by the next decade. Using sly editing/superimposing tricks, Ellis changed the poster to that of Newt Gingrich. He rescored scenes, obsessively, until ultimately releasing the film himself in 2005, renamed “Guns Before Butter” (after the Gang of Four song, as the title “When Tomorrow Hits” was forever tainted by the distributors). Ellis admits he’s never quite satisfied with his finished product. A few weeks after he sent me the DVD of “Guns,” for instance, he made even more tweaks and posted that result to YouTube.
Having emerged somewhat victorious–though severely wounded–from the “Guns Before Butter” travesty, Ellis recaught the filmmaker bug and directed/ co-wrote a second feature called “A Little Crazy” in 2003. He recast several people from “Guns,” including Gillingham, wife/actress Alice Ellis and character actor Ed Trotta. The bigger names in the film include Sasha Jenson of “Dazed and Confused” and Kirk Baltz, who played the severed-ear cop in “Reservoir Dogs” and also appeared in “Cigarettes & Coffee.” It’s a terrific, small-scale drama about a dysfunctional family, which reunites after the patriarch suffers a near-fatal head wound while “cleaning” his rifle. There are spot-on details throughout, such as the matriarch’s (legendary acting coach Sandra Seacat) mixing up the favorite dinner choices of two brothers. It’s filmed in a wrenching, dizzying style, with many hand-held shots. And like “Butter,” it ends on a realistically ambiguous note. The film was never officially released–mostly due to Ellis’ hard-earned wariness about distributors–but it played several festivals and garnered some glowing reviews, most notably from Variety.
As with “Butter,” Ellis again made changes to the film between sending it to me and posting it on YouTube. Most of these were wise choices: for example, he added a sitcom-like laugh track and supernatural effects to the film’s only awkwardly acted scene (where the father loses his job) to imply that it’s a warped flashback/dream.
When I interviewed Ellis, he shared many classic stories about his early days, editing schlocky horror films and erotic thrillers and, on one occasion, doing lighting work on a porno ranch set. He has an eclectic list of favorite filmmakers, from David Lynch to Gregg Araki to Hong Sang-soo. And most refreshing of all: he is, like me, one of few people who despise both “American Beauty” and “Crash” (the 2005 Oscar winner).
Sam Weisberg: What was your first screenplay idea?
Jordan Ellis: I had one about the porno industry and then “Boogie Nights” came out. It was a great movie, but sadly it didn’t make much money, so [producers] kind of walked away from that [subject]. Mine would have been much more low-budget and smaller, but it was still an ensemble [piece] about people in the porn industry. It was [set] in the ‘80s, so not the glamorous adult film world of the ‘70s, it was the dirty, nasty VHS world. It got optioned. But “Boogie Nights” kind of stole the thunder. It just kind of didn’t happen.
SW: It’s now been more than 20 years since “Boogie Nights.” Do you think there could be a resurgence?
JE: It’s a different world. I don’t even know what the world of porno is anymore. I had a friend who was a lighting guy on these porno things [in the early 1990s], we were both starting out, and I went on two shoots as the second lighting guy. It was horrible pay, but I wasn’t there for the money.
One of them was atrocious, where everything bad that could happen did happen, and I had my notebook out, just writing stuff down. The director’s name was Graves or something. [Gary Graver]. He was semi-famous. He had footage of the last movie Orson Welles was working on. He was a clown. And the producer shot the movie in one day. We shot on this ranch run by this old lovely couple, subsidizing their income by letting pornos shoot there.
There was just unbelievable stuff that I heard and saw. One of the actors I met was sort of an odd dude. A couple of years later, he ended up shooting himself in the head in front of his girlfriend, who was also in the industry, outside their apartment complex. [Cal Jammer and Jill Kelly]. His character name in this movie was Dickie Longer.
I heard racist comments from some of the women, that they wouldn’t work with a black guy. There was a woman doing a double penetration scene who ended up shitting on the guy on the bottom by accident. There was a scene where someone prematurely ejaculated and all of a sudden Dickie shows up and says “I’ll be a stunt cock!” One thing I’ll tell you: Dickie was a professional.
SW: What were some of the legit films you were assigned to work on, when you started?
JE: I did “The Unnamable,” right as I got to L.A. [as a production assistant and electrician, in 1988]. That’s an H.P. Lovecraft story. Horrible movie. The director was Jean-Paul Ouellette. He was American but he tried to remake himself as some French filmmaker. He was nice, he liked me a lot. I was like a lower-rent young kid in the editing room, but by the end of it, I was sort of his right-hand man, because I had a good sense of editing. I know when a movie’s boring. And this movie had so much boring shit in it! I’d say, “The joke was there, the rest is not a joke, cut it!” And he said, “You’re right, you’re right.”
I worked as a second unit assistant director on a different movie, I forget what the hell it was called. But I met the second unit director, Michael Keusch, he was a German filmmaker and he turned me on to all the Wim Wenders stuff. The cinematographer was named Greg Gardiner, who became really big. He got me on a bunch of electrician and lighting jobs for awhile, and I definitely didn’t want to do lighting. I didn’t like climbing up high on ladders and hanging shit.
And then Keusch did his first feature [“Night Club,” 1989] and I was first assistant director. It’s really different working for a European director as assistant as opposed to an American, where you’re just the guy keeping everything moving forward. For a European, you’re really helping in the creative process. The movie was not that good, but it was a good experience. I learned and saw first-hand how to make a low-budget film. Once the film was picked up by Crown International Pictures, they did a reshoot. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Crown finished version. Anything with a big club or bar scene was added. And the ending was changed.
The lead actor [and story creator co/writer, Nicholas Hoppe; died in 2013] pretty much bankrolled the original shoot. He’s not much of an actor, but the rest of the cast is good. Ed Trotta later acted in several films I directed.
SW: Trotta is by far the best thing in it. I liked some of what “Night Club” was going for–the long static shots, long-form dialogue, the nonstop dream sequences definitely made me wonder what was real and what wasn’t. What was it like working with Elizabeth Kaitan? I remember she played one of the mean-girl victims in “Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood.”
JE: She was also in “Assault of the Killer Bimbos,” another classic. Kaitan was great. Always positive and happy to be there.
After that I went to Europe, and I came back and wanted to get into editing, so Jean-Paul brought me in for “The Unnamable II: The Statement of Randolph Carter” [released in 1992; Ellis served as second unit assistant director.] I met Dan Loewenthal, who was editing this movie next door, this Venice skater gang movie, with Corey Haim—
SW: “Prayer of the Rollerboys?!” I interviewed that director, Rick King!
JE: Yeah. Dan brought me in to a few films. I did “Across the Moon” [released in 1994] with him, as a second assistant director. They had to cut it so fast because the budget was so low. It was a horrible movie about two women [played by Christina Applegate and Elizabeth Peña] with husbands in prison. They move out to Tehachapi, and they become friends and learn how to overcome issues in life or something. They were struggling to find a coherent storyline. Then Dan got me a job on “Lipstick Camera” [as assistant editor; released straight-to-video in 1994].
SW: Any vivid memories of that one? I thought that was a not-bad little thriller and Corey Feldman is actually funny in it. [Model and now jeweler Ele Keats plays an aspiring news anchor who accidentally records a politician’s incriminating sex acts; Feldman plays her tech geek friend, who lends her the camera and provides comic relief].
JE: I don’t remember much about that one, except I had to leave the production to go shoot “When Tomorrow Hits.” And that was one of the most fun times I’ve had making a movie. The crew was great, we just rolled with the punches, nothing got us down. Cops were cool to us about shooting. At the railway tracks, at this overpass, we gave the cops this song and dance that we were UCLA film students, and they were like, “Alright, just don’t do anything stupid,” and they left. And then the next shift of cops came and said, “Get the fuck outta here or we’re gonna lock this camera up.” But we had gotten the footage, so everything was perfect.
SW: How’d you find Lawrence Monoson?
JE: He was a friend of the lead actress Kim Gillingham, who knew my wife Alice from the USC theater department. Alice plays the meter maid in the film.
SW: Was everyone easy to work with?
JE: Yeah. I just remember Lawrence wanted to do everything so heavy. The movie had a sense of silliness, of whimsy, and a lot of that is lost. He’s a good actor, but I look back and see that different choices would have made it more like the movie I wanted, a little funnier.
Tracy Fraim, who plays Lawrence’s sidekick, and Kirk Baltz are two of my favorite actors ever. Kirk was supposed to play the lead and wasn’t able to. Kim was great, she and Kirk worked on Paul Thomas Anderson’s first short film, “Coffee & Cigarettes,” but he was doing “Natural Born Killers.” And Scott Plank played the badguy, he later died [in a road accident in 2002], but he was a hoot. He would come to set with ideas. He’d be like, “I got this crazy car, I think this guy would drive it, is that OK?” Or “I’m gonna frost the tips of my hair, what do you think?” And it wasn’t just to make himself feel better or cooler. He got deep into the character. Actors like that are great.
SW: So tell me how “When Tomorrow Hits,” which was shot in the ’90s, became “Guns Before Butter,” which has a 2005 release date on imdb.com.
JE: We had a nightmare distribution company. I was sending the movie out and they were the ones that rubbed my belly best, and I rolled over like a dog. They told me what I wanted to hear. That happens to many filmmakers: a distribution company telling you certain things and not doing what they said. It was a dark period.
SW: How did they mess the film up?
JE: There was supposed to be more time to edit it and add music, and they just took my rough cut and slapped some terrible music on it and released it. If a movie’s already been sold, it’s sort of like everyone’s had it already. I got all the territories back except Germany, they had it in perpetuity in Germany. By that point, you’re dealing with the sub-distributors, the majority of which are looking to rip you off.
SW: So you are now independently selling it?
JE: Yes, I have complete control. And it was a non-union production so there’s no SAG [rules] involved.
SW: Shady as the first deal was, it made some money in certain territories. Did you make any money off that deal?
JE: I got an upfront payment, but it took me a long time to get it. I had a lawyer friend, and then we sued and eventually won, and they had to give me some of the money they’d made in some territories.
SW: I still see some versions of it sold in Europe, often on a Region-2 DVD with another movie included.
JE: Yeah. I got them to stop [entirely] in Asia. I stopped looking at what’s out there. That company would package all these movies that they’d grabbed up from filmmakers and throw them in a big basket. It was hard to determine how much they sold your movie for, they could tell you anything, like “That was for 10%” or “That was for 1%.” The lowest is usually what they did. And the [sub-distributors] that bought it in these territories, they could do whatever they want, buy-one-get-one-free or whatever.
They originally tried to make mine more of a gun-and-sex kind of a movie, they made some poster that was ridiculous. I remember they rented out a room at the American Film Market in Santa Monica [to sell the film], and I went in and I saw the rest of their posters and thought, “God, I’m in a horrible world right now. These people are scum.” There was a lot of schlock at the market back in the ’90s. They’d just slap an 8×10 picture of a girl with a gun, and no one cared about the content of the movie.
I left that day and my head was spinning and my stomach was ill. They were friendly, but they did not want me there. They wanted Kim there, they wanted a girl there. God knows what she went through that day, beyond what she told me. I know she had a horrible time and they were disgusting.
I remember dealing with overseas people, you can threaten them, but, I mean—
SW: The language barrier?
JE: Not even that. Even in England, they were just, like, “Dude, fuck, what are you gonna do?” And the only option I had was to find a lawyer in England and pay an exorbitant amount of money to stop it. Somehow in Asia, I sent a cease and desist [letter] and they were actually appalled. The company actually tried to sell it in America, to a few cable shows, and I stopped them. And one [sub-distributor] I sued in America, the Feds came after them and shut them down and there was no way I was gonna get any money from them. It’s like putting a finger in a dam, there’s always leaks that pop out, and once it goes digital, you can’t stop it.
SW: How many companies ended up with the film?
JE: Germany had [the rights] forever, which probably isn’t even legal. They hit Asia, South America, Europe. And so if people already have it in the stores, they don’t want to buy it again. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to change the title, after I got it back. I just felt a need to change everything because they had spoiled so much with that title. I wanted people to know that this was my version.
“Guns Before Butter” is a Gang of Four song I like and it seemed to work: they get guns before they get their money. But now I’m sad I changed it. A lot of people scratch their heads with that title. My parents were like, “What the hell?” [laughs] It’s not as poetic as “When Tomorrow Hits.”
SW: Was there a silver lining in that lots of people saw the movie?
JE: Nah, not for me. I wanted the movie to be finished the way I wanted it, and to make a second film. But by the time people found out what company I was involved with, their reputation, how horrible they were, had gotten bigger and bigger.
Most of the other filmmakers involved with this company had no lawyer, no way of getting their film back. I heard horrible, sad stories. People were stalking them outside their building and being arrested, all sorts of things like that. I didn’t have to go that way. I’m sort of lucky that way. It took a long time, but I got it back. And I finally got to edit it into a semi-version of what I wanted to do.
SW: How did you figure out how to nail the company, in the end?
JE: The judge in the lawsuit forced them to unblacken all the sales [details] for their movies. We were gonna show that to all the other filmmakers, which freaked them out, so they settled. It was a semi-victory. But at that point, I was exhausted with the process and the film was sort of dated.
SW: In a way, it’s not dated, because 2005 is around the time everyone started using the phrase “the one percent.” What inspired the class distinction theme?
JE: I was very into Godard at the time. It’s sort of a remake of “Band of Outsiders.” A friend said to me, “Someone should remake that,” and that was a jumping-off point. Also, the L.A. Weekly back then had some fantastic political writers, and I picked up some of what they were saying and incorporated it.
SW: The Monoson character is bisexual but it’s left very discreet. Was there originally more of that theme?
JE: Yeah, there was more of Lawrence’s character selling himself, in the video store [scene]. The producer played the guy in the store, going down on him. And we had to take that out, the producer did not want that scene. He did a really good job! Lawrence wanted more of that sort of thing, more of a rough trade, Santa Monica Boulevard, selling yourself sort of thing.
SW: That’s great, because I hate hearing when straight actors won’t do or are really uncomfortable doing gay parts, like Will Smith. That’s great that Lawrence was, like, “Bring it on!” Did you base it directly on the scene happening on Santa Monica Boulevard?
JE: Yeah. I don’t think it happens like it used to. West Hollywood was where all the young men sell themselves at night. I thought it was a grittier angle, it gave him more of a street life. “The Basketball Diaries” is sort of like that. I don’t know how many times I read that. That was probably an influence, too. We wanted more of an edge than just a criminal with a gun.
SW: I wanted to ask if your second movie, “A Little Crazy,” was semi-autobiographical.
JE: Yeah. I don’t have a sister, so not everything. My writing partner [James Encinas] has pieces in there, too. But it has a lot of my own stuff, that rings very true to people that know me and my family.
SW: Was it tough to have them watch it?
JE: Yeah, I think it was tough, for my mother.
SW: Did they like it overall?
JE: I think they did, yeah. There’s moments in it where everyone is sympathetic. They have their moment where they’re not just an asshole or behaving childishly, where their guard is down or they’re giving or loving. I come from a family of some immature behavior.
SW: It also reminded me a lot of the book “The Corrections.”
JE: I don’t know if I had read that book before or after [shooting the film]. But I’m a big fan of that book. They made a pilot of that for HBO, with Noah Baumbach directing and Ewan McGregor in it, and no one picked it up. I’d love to dig that up.
SW: You got Sasha Jenson of “Dazed and Confused” to be in “A Little Crazy.”
JE: “Dazed” is one of my favorites. Again, Kim Gillingham is good friends with Sasha. She was the female lead in the original “Captain America,” the movie the Cannon guys were working on. It was a total disaster. She was very much in the mix with a lot of actors, Ally Sheedy and Eric Stoltz were in her and my wife’s acting group. Her career has had some ups and downs and now she’s had this acting coach career, carrying on for Sandra Seacat, finding a way to get a more truthful performance by [tapping into] your dreams.
SW: I had a question about the ending of “Crazy,” no spoilers! Is that just a dream the protagonist is having about his future daughter, or is it a cut to him and his wife a few years after they’ve had the daughter?
JE: I think it’s both. I definitely wanted a projection of the future, his projection and not reality.
SW: I love that, because anyone that’s ever had cold feet about children, might do something like that, fast forward past the infant years to the time where they develop real personalities.
JE: I ended up having a daughter and it plays into it. It’s a blonde little girl jumping around, which is totally like my daughter.
SW: What were the budgets of the two films?
JE: I’d say $25,000 to $30,000 each. It might be more, after you look at the whole thing, the promotional money, the posters, the little cards you make, traveling to places, screenings.
SW: And how was the switch from non-union to SAG?
JE: Hardly anyone was making films like “When Tomorrow Hits” at that time. The actors read the script and were excited, and they wanted to be a part of it. They were SAG but went ahead and did it non-SAG.
By the second movie, there were a lot of low-budget films being made all the time and people were more leery, and I think SAG had come down a little harder on directors since then. So I chose to do it union. And I wanted certain people to be in the film and I don’t think they’d have done it non-union.
SW: Is it prohibitively expensive to do a SAG production?
JE: No, it didn’t add any costs. It’s just that if it sells, the actors start getting residuals at a certain point, and someone like an accountant has to be really aware of payments, because you could really get into trouble. I took it around to festivals, and it didn’t float anyone’s boat.
SW: It won some awards, though.
JE: Yeah, but not at Sundance. It won at the Magnolia Film Festival, at MethodFest, at Hollywood MiniDV Festival, at Silver Lake. The buyers aren’t going to those festivals. Maybe they go to SXSW after Sundance dies down.
SW: I have some filmmaker friends and they usually have to pay an entry fee just to show it.
JE: Oh yeah, that’s a racket itself, man. I’ve heard stories of people who create a festival, they set up a screening room in a church for one night, and there’s like $200 fees! And I refuse. I never go higher than like $40. Some of them were like $75, $100, and it’s like, “What the fuck? Are you kidding me? To watch my movie that you’re gonna decline anyway?!”
I remember this cheap-ass festival in Sedona. They didn’t even give the filmmakers wine there. I guess it was just for the people that paid for tickets. Finally, we got so bent out of shape, we started grabbing bottles of wine. “Fuck this shit, we’re drinking this, damn it!” We kind of overran them.
But there were others where I had the time of my life. My favorite one was the Santa Fe Film Festival. My back had been really bad for like a year, during this period of editing. And all of a sudden I had no back pain. They had phenomenal screenings. I just went to movie after movie. I was so happy to be there.
And at the Magnolia Independent Film Festival, in Mississippi, they kept all the filmmakers in one area, for the whole three-day weekend. We all took a bus into town and watched these movies all day long and then went back and partied all night. A lot of times at these festivals, you meet people that say, “Oh, I’ll be there, I’ll be there,” and no one shows up. But this one, we all showed up for each other’s films. I ended up winning the Best Screenplay Award. The Silver Lake Film Festival was really nice, I think I won Best Film and my actor won Best Actor.
SW: Did it get any reviews despite it never being released theatrically?
JE: It got a nice review from eCritic. Variety gave it a really nice one. I haven’t had anybody trash it. But not many people have reviewed it, so it hasn’t had the chance to go through the ringer.
SW: Since I watched “A Little Crazy” on DVD, you have posted it to YouTube and made some changes, such as adding a laugh track and dream effects to the scene where the dad gets fired. Why?
JE: It just felt right. Re-editing the film myself allowed me to experiment more with the material.
SW: How did you get into film to begin with?
JE: My mother had an 8mm camera. We had a projector and my mom made movies of us. As I got older it became sort of my camera. I think in 11th grade we had to do speeches on something and I had the idea to make a movie instead. I had a friend that was a photographer and we made two short films. One came out good, the other we didn’t have the budget for. It was sort of a “Twilight Zone” [episode] inside a video game, people killing each other, but we didn’t have the technical stuff for the rays and stuff.
Sadly, I didn’t go to college for film. I got sidetracked with a business degree which everyone was getting at that period of time. By the end of college, I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker, so I went to SVA [in New York] for the summer and stayed with my cousin, who lived at the nurses’ dorms at Bellevue Hospital.
M. Night Shyamalan was my classmate. I did a short film with him. Sadly, I didn’t stay in contact. We had shawarma together every day at lunch.
SW: Do you still have the short film?
JE: Probably on VHS, my short film and his. I know I acted in his. He was a very Spielberg-y guy and I was really into “Stranger Than Paradise.” When I saw that, I said, “Holy shit, I’m totally out of this business thing. I wanna make movies about the people I hang out with.” That, “She’s Gotta Have It” and “Blood Simple” were the three films that got me thinking about doing film. To me, they started the whole American independent cinema.
I was a Kubrick and Hal Ashby and Robert Altman fan as a kid, especially Kubrick. I don’t know how little I was, my parents weren’t home and I went perusing in their closets and drawers and found a Playboy magazine, and there was a 10 or 12-page pictorial spread of “A Clockwork Orange.” Later on, I had a friend, who showed me a “A Clockwork Orange,” on his VCR. And all the images from the pictorial came back! As a 12 or 13 or 14 year-old, that movie had everything.
“Repo Man” is also an important one.
SW: So glad you mentioned that! That’s in my top five.
JE: Yes, it’s in my blood. When I moved to L.A., I lived near the New Beverly Cinema, ingesting Polanski and Godard and Cassavetes and Truffaut, anyone doing strange shit. And also it had a low budget context, people that could do it on their own with little meddling.
SW: Who are some of your other favorite filmmakers?
JE: Jon Jost and Gregg Araki. I was already a fan of Araki, his AIDS film, “The Living End.” Jon Jost let him borrow his 16mm camera to shoot it. Araki’s first three movies were non-synced, low-budget, black and white. Just him and a couple people making a movie. And he mentioned Jon Jost [in an interview], who had a UCLA retrospective way back when, and I saw “Last Chants for a Slow Dance” , about a drifter, Tom Blair is the actor. And it just blew me away. That and “Sure Shot,” about hunters in Utah, are my two favorites. There’s some amazing in-camera effects.
I remember seeing a blurb come up that said “Chants” was made for $5,000. And I said, “Holy shit, that’s how you do it! I don’t know if I can be as good a filmmaker as him, but I can put it together.” You get the story, you limit yourself with your budget, but still do what you gotta do.
SW: When I met Jost, briefly, he told me that he hates the convention in movies of over-the-shoulder, point-of-view shots. Someone’s talking, camera is on them, someone else is talking, camera is on them. You don’t need money to get creative with the angles, whether it’s a static shot or just not zooming in on who is talking.
JE: I think “Slow Dance” is all single takes. Long driving sequences on the highway, in the Midwest. And Jost even co-wrote the songs! I thought they were old country and western tunes. He does these superimposed things where the television is on and he blackens out the whole room, and then he shoots it again without the TV, it’s double-exposed or overexposed, and he does it all in-camera. It’s an amazing movie about loneliness, emptiness.
SW: Were there any hyped-up directors you felt were overrated?
JE: I’ll tell you someone it took me forever [to like]. Tarkovsky. “Andrei Rublev,” the first time, I wasn’t ready for it, and then I re-watched it non-letterboxed on a little VHS and it was totally the wrong way to watch it, it didn’t appeal to me. But I’ve watched it now twice on a big-screen television, in my little man cave. And that’s one of the most breathtaking—one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. I love all his movies, he’s epic, he’s a monster filmmaker, but “Andrei Rublev”–I know why he’s so revered.
The other guy is Carl Theodor Dreyer. “Ordet” is the most subversive thing I’ve seen in I don’t know how long. It’s about a family falling apart and their favorite son comes back and he’s lost his mind and he thinks he’s Jesus. Everyone is questioning faith. And this was made in the ’50s.
Others: Robert Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar”; Tsai Ming-liang’s “What Time Is It There?”; Jia Zhangke’s “Still Life”; Hong Sang-soo’s “Woman is the Future of Man”; Béla Tarr’s “Werckmeister Harmonies”; Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail”; Lee Chang-dong’s “Oasis” and “Secret Sunshine”; Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Blissfully Yours.”
Hong Sang-soo makes about three movies a year and they’re all about fragmented time, and he repeats sequences. “Woman is the Future of Man” fucking changed my life. I was in a rut and watched it and it made me so excited about filmmaking again. He makes the same movie over and over, about a filmmaker coming home and coming in contact with his old friend and there’s always a woman involved, and then he’ll fragment it and the movie will repeat, just changing what happened [slightly], how the friend reacts, for instance. There might be less kissing ass and more honesty [from the friend] in the second half.
SW: Tell me about the making of your short movies, which can also be viewed on YouTube.
JE: “Stepping Stone” was me putting all my favorite things from movies at the time in one place. I was watching a lot of American gangster movies, Scorsese, ’70s American cinema. It was about a guy who becomes a hit man out of nowhere and the sad life that he leads. It was a progression from 8mm movies that I’d done as a kid.
Then I made “Loaded,” which is my angry, political–I don’t know what it was. It was all about racism and white man’s anger in this country. It was very heavy-handed. It has some fun little moments, but it’s not the best written piece.
SW: I am wondering what you thought of “Crash”?
JE: I never was a fan.
SW: Me either!
JE: I’m not a fan of “American Beauty” either. I think they’re the two most overrated American films, and they both won Best Picture. I put them both in that group of, like, “Come back in 20 years, see what you think about them.”
SW: That’s insane! I don’t think I’ve ever met a single other person with the same viewpoint on those two films! I’ve tried giving “American Beauty” another try.
JE: I haven’t tried. “Crash” I knew I hated. I knew what was coming a mile away. You know it’s all gonna [end in] round, perfectly shaped arcs for every character. I hated “American Beauty” so much when I watched it.
SW: I wonder what it is. I think it was just the literary symbolism of everything. The hateful homophobe turning out to be closeted. It’s too tidy.
JE: All the deepness people were projecting onto this movie, I’m just, like, “Fuck.” That paper trash bag, blowing around in a circle? I wanted to scream at the fucking—I just hated it so much. Like, “Are you fucking serious?!”
SW: Did you see it with a group of people that loved it? That can make it worse.
JE: I don’t think my wife cared for it either.
SW: I imagine they haven’t aged well. I saw “American Beauty” when I was 19. It was hard getting back to college from fall break, everyone’s just raving about it. I would lose friends over it. People get very angry if you hate something beloved or love something reviled. I remember liking the beginning until it gets very heavy-handed. I remember when it started I thought it was gonna be a great, biting satire.
JE: And then it wasn’t. I remember, that year, having to stop conversations, because I’d just be this guy saying, “Fuck that shit, it was terrible!” And everyone would look at me like, “God, he’s crazy.” So I’d keep my mouth shut after awhile.
SW: It’s a very collegiate movie. It’s what a decent college student would write, for his sprawling magnum opus in a creative writing class. Tons and of tons of symbolism. The rose petals and all that.
JE: Right, it was from a very white perspective. And it was pretending to be subversive, but it wasn’t very subversive. That’s what I got most angry about. People thought it was so cutting-edge, so off-beat. And I thought it was pretty much normal. There’s some odd characters, but they’re not pushing it into weird things we haven’t seen before. Like “Blue Velvet.” When it comes to examining what’s behind the suburban picket fences, to me it was not anywhere near as subversive as that.
SW: Were you a Lynch fan from the start?
JE: I tipped everyone off to “Blue Velvet.” My friends were not artists, they went to the military and different things, but we loved the demented, black humor of that film.
SW: I tend to prefer movies that get like 2 ½ stars out of 4, vs. 4 out of 4. “Blue Velvet” really divided audiences, and there’s much more to chew on when that happens. The so-called “masterpieces” like “Chariots of Fire,” raved about across the board…they’re nice films but not that great.
JE: Yeah, I watched it with my family and can scratch it off my list.
As for film criticism, there’s such a bloated amount of people reviewing movies. My go-to person was always Manohla Dargis when she was at L.A. Weekly. Now I’ll look at Rotten Tomatoes on Friday afternoon to get a scan on what’s out there, because I don’t get the newspaper anymore. But I have to dig a little deeper and see who’s saying what. I was sad when “At the Movies” finally folded. Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott, I thought those guys were different in the same way Siskel and Ebert were, I respected both of their tastes. I was loving their show, they probably had it on two months. But nobody was watching those guys, sadly. I thought it was an excellent pairing, after so many bad pairs on that show, trying to make it survive.
SW: I saw on LinkedIn that you did a video with Liars? [“A Ring on Every Finger,” 2012.]
JE: Yeah, that’s probably my favorite music video I’ve done.
SW: I saw them in 2002 at Michiganfest and they were pretty electrifying.
JE: Yeah, they were a New York band back then and now they’re an L.A. band. They still use drums and guitars but they’ve really progressed into this electronic band. They’re wonderful live, still, with lots of keyboards.
Videos are a tough field. There’s no budget anymore, the record labels don’t have any money to make them. But you get a lot of artistic freedom and if the music inspires me, it’s like an open palette and it’s really fun. When I have to deal with bands that aren’t as interesting, it’s tougher.
There was a band I did a video for and I had a big falling out with [the frontman]. He wanted surfing stuff. So I went out and got a rig and got in the water. It was really cool. I did some underwater shots for the Liars video, in this pool, and then I shot this surfing and beach stuff. But I never liked the music and maybe I didn’t put enough effort into it, and he was expecting me to come up with the Liars video or Thee Oh Sees video, which were pretty damn good. And I just didn’t have that [in me] for this weak-ass song. So he bailed. And I just used a Deerhunter song [over the footage]. Deerhunter didn’t hire me, but I had footage and wanted to use it and I was furious with the situation, so I was just like “Fuck you, I’ll show you!”
I sent Deerhunter a link and said, “Hey, I’m a fan, I made this.” I don’t think they ever got back to me.
SW: They don’t strike me as that litigious.
JE: Yeah, how can you be angry at someone trying to get the word out?
SW: Are there more unreleased episodes of “The Alpine Village People”?
JE: No. It started really fun and then the band started hating each other. By the fifth [and final] episode, I think only two of them talked to each other. It was all about who’s getting more lines and that shit. It was just horrible. I learned that it’s really hard to be a cinematographer and a director and I was just stretching myself. I wasn’t concentrating enough on directing.
SW: How did that show get established?
JE: I had met the band and had the best time hanging out with them, and came up with the idea: what if they became like a Black Flag polka band? They get into a van, they drive to a town, they jump out, they perform, they go back to someone’s house, they party, they fuck, they wake up the next morning, jump in the van and hit the road for the next show. Before the show, I made a Thee Oh Sees music video which they appeared in, and it came out great. They’re all actors, too.
SW: Are you working on anything now?
JE: I’m writing two screenplays, which I hope to direct in the not too distant future. I’m working for CityTV Santa Monica and making video content for a law firm. It’s not art, but it’s paying the bills.