Seattle Screen Scene

Minding the Gaps: An Interview with Dan Sallitt

There’s no figure in American cinephilia quite like Dan Sallitt. He occupies a number of familiar roles (critic; filmmaker; and critic-filmmaker, though there are fewer of those running around), but as a working theorist of cinema, he’s without peer in the United States. Yes, the academy offers shelter to more than a few self-styled theoreticians, but Sallitt makes a practice of, you know, actually watching movies. He consumes them voraciously, in fact, most often in community with others—he’s a fixture at New York’s rep houses—and, perhaps more importantly, he does so with an obvious, infectious pleasure. His ideas (about the still-expanding horizons of Bazinian realism, about the limitations—and the corresponding possibilities—of cinematic psychology, and about the productive lacunae that the camera creates when it records the world) begin with his peculiar tastes, and the evident delight that he takes in interrogating them. The Sallitt model merges a mastery of certain historical-theoretical concepts (old André and his “Ontology” loom large) with a clear-eyed assessment of one’s personal preferences. It’s the second half of this equation that most distinguishes Sallitt: it’s easy enough cobble together some top-down ideas about cinema and apply them, stencil-like, to any movie that comes across the transom; it’s a far more difficult thing to plumb the depths of your own idiosyncrasies and resurface not only with an articulable set of principles, but with your aesthetic enthusiasms sturdy and intact. Would that we all so thoroughly enjoyed our predilections.

At least we can savor Sallitt’s. For a particular kind of cinephile, encountering sallittfavorites.wordpress.com is a crucial point of departure: Sallitt’s color-coded lists, which order movies along two axes (numbers rank films for a given year; colors communicate enthusiasm relative to the wider cinematic corpus), offer novel cartographies for the young movie obsessive, who is often enthralled by the enumerative power of lists, but who typically begins charting his cinematic course with musty consensus canons that venerate—and falsely proclaim—objectivity. As you scroll through these rainbow catalogs, which award high honors to both Rosa la rose, fille publique (Paul Vecchiali’s criminally underseen masterwork) and Michael Clayton (the George Clooney Oscar vehicle), it becomes apparent that this preference-set belongs specifically to Sallitt, and to Sallitt alone. That might suggest that his taste, if not his model, is resistant to replication. But what’s most exceptional about Sallitt is the fact that he’s amassed so many disciples; the ranks of the Sallittists have, over time, swollen to a veritable cinephile brigade. Now, I ought to admit that on some level I remain skeptical that anyone could, ex nihilo, develop cinematic proclivities perfectly contiguous with Sallitt’s, and his most devoted followers do, on occasion, champion films in a manner that seems more prescribed than personal. But devotion inevitably—and perhaps rightly—attaches to mentor figures who encourage new ways of seeing, particularly if they do so with unusual magnanimity, as does Sallitt. And although I’m increasingly less young, you should count me among those cinephiles for whom the discovery of Sallittism was an invitation to cross-examine my own interests, an exercise which proved (and continues to prove) clarifying. So even if, for me, Sallittism is not—as it is for others—an absolute lodestar, it has become an important, perhaps indispensable, quadrant of my taste.

That made it an especial pleasure to sit down with the man himself at VIFF, where his fifth feature, Fourteen, had its North American premiere. As we discuss, Sallitt’s movies are coterminous with his passions as a viewer and as a thinker—though he is quick to point out that he’s not alone in that regard, at least not anymore: a growing number of “film intellectuals” moonlight as filmmakers, and vice versa. In the context of an American cinema that elsewhere looks moribund, dimwitted, and ever more impersonal, that might augur better times ahead. And I suspect that if those times do come to pass, Dan Sallitt—in his self-professedly quiet way—will be partly responsible for bringing them about.

Evan Morgan: The first thing that struck me while watching Fourteen was the unusual cadence of your actors’ line deliveries. As in The Unspeakable Act, Tallie Medel speaks with a rhythm that sounds slightly askew from the conventions of American realism, noticeably mannered. Do you hear your scripts in a clear way while you’re writing them, and then instruct your performers to follow specific rhythms?

Dan Sallitt: No I don’t, actually. This question is interesting because you’re not the first person to feel this way. In fact, many people have. But it’s not something that I think about when I’m writing the script. I just try to make them sound like people, and when I’m directing, I also try to make them sound like people. I think it’s possible that because the classical American cinema was my first love, I have a certain sense that the writing need not be concealed.

Actually, with Fourteen, more often than with any of my other films, I’ve had people tell me that it seemed naturalistic. Norma [Kuhling] especially has a way of turning strange dialogue into something that sounds natural. Very often, on set, I would say to her, “This line sounds a little arch to me, should we change it?” and she would say no. She had figured out how she was going to say it, how to make it real.

For this film, for the first time, I felt a little bit less of the “abstraction” that people commonly feel in my movies. I’m definitely not trying for anything that sounds as consciously written as, say, a Hal Hartley film, or something like that.

EM: Do you give the actors free rein, then, in terms of the line readings?

DS: I care a lot about the line readings, so I don’t give people free rein. My goal is the emotional tenor. When I write the script, I have in mind the way that the emotions play through the dialogue, and if the actors do something else, I’m there to correct it. Though sometimes I’m too wedded to a concept: things will go in a different direction, I end up forcing them to do it my way, but when I get to the editing room, I realize that what I wanted was not in fact the best way. On the set, I’m not as loose as I would like to be. But when you’re in the editing room, your state of mind is completely different. Nobody’s around, you have all the time in the world to relax, to put your antennae out, and then sometimes things change course.

There’s a scene in the film where two couples go on a double date and have a conversation about lingerie. That was a scene that I wrote with more of a clear concept, that the shyer couple would be discomfited, less comfortable in the situation. But neither of the actors felt good about it, and they kept adding things to the scene. I went home unsure of whether or not what they did worked. But that was a case where it played fine. Their changes didn’t violate anything about the script. And yet I was unable to see, in the moment, that what they were doing would serve my purposes just as well as what I originally had in mind.

EM: Both Fourteen and The Unspeakable Act are centered on young people, and I believe much of the crew that worked on Fourteen was comprised of younger cinephiles interested in your work as a critic and a filmmaker. How do you understand your relationship to youth culture, specifically young cinephile culture?

DS: I feel strongly connected to young cinephile culture. The thing about filmmaking—and cinephilia—is that you can’t keep hanging out with your own age group as you get older. They drop off, move somewhere. You can’t put together a crew of sixty-somethings. It’s the same for cinephilia: my original set of cinephile friends are watching DVDs at home or delving into 1958 episodes of Gunsmoke, something like that. The people who are out there tend to be young, and I happen to be doing the same thing still, so it’s natural that I move in their circles.

In terms of the filmmaking, there was a gear shift: my first movies focused on people around my age, and I followed them for three films. Until The Unspeakable Act, I was using the same actors, not because of an affinity for people at a specific age, but because of my affinity for the actors. I like to work with actors a second time, especially if I don’t feel confident casting a new film. But The Unspeakable Act was a different script, and I had to cast all new people. Even for the older roles, I couldn’t get the people I’d worked with before. But when it was over, the same thing happened: I wanted to work with Tallie again in the worst way, and I started the process all over again.

I think Rohmer did something similar around the time of Perceval and Catherine de Heilbronn. He developed new groups of people that he liked to work with. These gear shifts are natural. Even if you want to follow certain actors to the end of their life (which I kind of do) the variety of ideas that you generate makes it necessary to change. And once you’ve made the change, you’ve got all these new people around.

EM: That sentiment dovetails nicely with the text of Fourteen: people float in and out of one’s life. The natural course of things takes us away from one another. And in filmmaking, just as in life, I imagine that you find different groups of people as you discover new interests.

DS: Yes, it’s like that. And it goes both ways: my first movie featured Strawn Bovee, and she has a small role in Fourteen. My second film had Edith Meeks and Dylan McCormick. Dylan is also in Fourteen. My third film was written specifically for Strawn and Edith; I was tracking their lives. Tallie probably wasn’t even born then, and yet now it’s Tallie who I can’t get out of my life. She became extremely important to me as a filmmaker.

EM: Do you think focusing on younger characters, played by younger performers, with younger people around on set, has changed your approach?

DS: I don’t think so. In my relatively quiet way, I’m stubbornly holding on to something. When I’m around people on set, they might not see it, but there’s a stubborn continuity. I might even reverse the gear shifts: Strawn and I are talking about working together again. We’re now at the age where it would be a movie about older people, for sure.

But I enjoyed the idea of writing for younger people. It was a voice that was fun for me, especially the character in The Unspeakable Act. She just came out of me and right onto the paper. But when I’m in the middle of it all, I keep a little of myself to myself, and I’m always vaguely aware that my aims might differ from the aims of everyone else on the set. I want everyone to benefit from the movie, but my agenda was set somewhere around the time that Truffaut started writing [laughs].

EM: Can we talk a little bit about the way that time works in Fourteen? The movie has significant gaps in the chronology, and I’m curious how you conceived of the space between the scenes that we see. Did you start with a fleshed out story, and then pare away? Or did each scene emerge for you as a discrete unit?

DS: The gaps are part of the film. And that’s really important to me. What the audience sees is what I see. We’re outside of the people on screen when we watch a movie, and I try to preserve that “outsideness.” If I make up a backstory about one of the characters, it’s only to help the actors, not because the backstory is important. If I didn’t put it on screen, it’s because I didn’t want it to be there. The things that fall into those gaps, I don’t even know what they are.

When I write a phone call, and you only hear one side of it, I don’t know what’s being said on the other said. Later on, you inevitably have to write the other side for the actors. It’s like a test: Can I make this fit together for the actor? But I only want to think about what we see on screen.

That principle extends to Jo’s mental disorder. I didn’t want a mental diagnosis for her. The way we experience her is the way that we experience people in life: she’s a collection of external signs. The gaps have nothing in them.

EM: The film certainly plays that way. Which, for me, brings to mind Paul Vecchiali, who is a personal favorite of mine, and a filmmaker that I know you like as well. One thing I really admire about the Vecchialian approach is this prioritization of emotion over psychology. Or put another way, Vecchiali believes that psychology is downstream from emotion. In his films, we understand the emotions of his people before we recognize the psychological forces that propel them, if we recognize them at all. I sense something similar in your approach to character.

DS:  I wouldn’t have put it in terms of Vecchiali, but I do want the effect to rule the movie. What’s behind it, which includes psychology (and a million other things, actually) is fungible.

EM: There’s a shot in the film I wanted to ask you about. About 40 mins into the movie Mara goes to visit Jo at her paternal home in the suburbs, where she’s recovering from a suicide attempt. The sequence begins with a long shot (both in terms of duration and camera position) of a train station, where people are coming and going. The image registered to me as a formal break in the film. Elsewhere, we’re mostly confined to interiors, with people paired into couples and quartets. But this shot suggests countless arrivals and partings, as if the wider world has suddenly intruded on the film. Did you find the image on location? Or did you conceive of it early on?

DS: I very much conceived of it in advance. In fact, I was bragging to everybody on set that I was going to stop the film dead for four minutes. I loved the way that the camera picked out Tallie among the crowd. It brought a little tear to my eye. But in the editing room, I became aware that though I loved it, it would be a problem for some people. Some of the audience would be irrevocably lost at this point. I thought about removing it, but I realized that I could never live with myself if I did. I’d rather take the chance of alienating the audience than live the rest of my life knowing that I’d cut that shot.

Personally, I find it a compelling image. I like trains. There’s always something happening: you see how the commuter town works, people’s spouses picking them up. But what’s really going on there, as you said, is that Jo has almost died. And I knew she was going to die, so I felt a need for gravity, that the film needed to be stopped dead, because the whole film is an attempt not to take Jo’s loss lightly. I’ve never killed a character before, and I did not want to do so with a light hand. I wanted the whole film to be dedicated to this life that was lost.

EM: I think that’s there in the shot. As I was watching it, I felt a mounting sense of, if not dread, a kind of gravity, as you say. There’s a monumentality to the image. It was the moment where I felt most on edge, unsure of what was going to happen. The formal break suddenly forces a different emotion into the film.

DS: That’s exactly the kind of feeling I wanted at that moment. Of course I know that Jo is in trouble. The audience might start to sense it there.

EM: You’re one of the few American film critics that has a fairly complete—and articulable—aesthetic framework for watching and writing about movies. I think this model, of the critic who possesses an established set of interests as a viewer, and who then re-purposes those interests as a filmmaker, is more well known in Europe, but maybe less well known in America. How much does your practice as a critic inform your approach as a filmmaker? And if it does, do you feel that that sets you apart from your peers in the States?

DS: Let me take the second part first. Right now, there’s more fluidity in the American independent community. A lot of people who write, or are film intellectuals, are making films, and the films reflect something about them. Everyone seems to be making movies that they want to make. It’s not the era of the “calling card” film that I recall from 20 years ago. Mumblecore may have changed that. Now, the more personal, the better. I don’t think what you’re describing is an unprecedented thing in the United States anymore.

In a certain sense, I see my love of cinema as being one with the feelings that I want to create in my own movies. I locate them in film history, even. The idea of my movies standing next to the great films matters to me. And I don’t feel like I’m switching hats when I move between thinking about movies and making them.

The biggest difference comes in generating the idea. It’s a weird process. Coming up with the ideas that you need to make a movie is a kind of pre-artistic process, in my opinion. There’s fantasy, there’s infantilism. Whatever gives you energy on some deep childish level is what’s needed to drive you through the process. You’re gratifying yourself in all kinds of weird ways. Once some things have emerged from wherever they’ve been hiding, the critic gets involved. And the internal critic, who shapes your own effluvia, is very similar to the person who writes a review of someone else’s movie. So there is a lot of common ground. But this one thing, criticism does not prepare you for it. That’s the gap. If someone can’t bridge that gap, it’s probably because they haven’t got a handle on how to generate the stuff.

EM: Is that something that’s gotten easier for you with each new film, or is it truly a spontaneous process?

DS: I think it just comes to you. It doesn’t get easier, but I also don’t find it particularly hard. If you think of yourself as an artist, you have to have this weird process going on. I’ve had it running in my own head for a long time, though it’s changed over the years.

Various circumstances gave rise to Fourteen: one of them was that I had a day job that I didn’t want to quit, but I also couldn’t get enough contiguous vacation time to shoot something all at once. But I had ideas that I could shoot over time, in pieces, so I could satisfy the requirements of my living situation and make the movie work. That was instrumental in finding the ideas that became Fourteen.

EM: Did the film ultimately come together over a significant period of time?

DS: It was pretty fast. I finished The Unspeakable Act in early 2012. Fourteen was on paper by mid-2012. I wanted to work again with Tallie, and I wanted to work with Kate Lyn Sheil, who had a small role in The Unspeakable Act. I wanted to see what would happen with the two of them. The script was called “Tallie/Kate” for a long time.

I had a vague role for each of them and a vague agenda: I told Kate once that I thought one of her directors should remake The Mother and the Whore with her in the Françoise Lebrun role. And after a while I thought, maybe I should try that. So there was something in my mind about that scene that became Jo’s breakdown.

But it didn’t solidify until I had this almost fantasy idea of the little girl and the bedtime story of Jo’s life, the funeral, and the little girl’s reaction triggering the mother’s reaction. I didn’t have the rest of the movie at that point, I just had a vague structure. But that scene made me feel like the movie could be done.

EM: I wanted to ask you about the ending of the film, because the sequence you describe, where Mara narrates Jo’s story to her daughter, initially seemed like a logical endpoint for the film. But you keep pushing it further to the funeral scene, where Mara is granted a real moment of grief. I’m curious to hear you articulate why the film had to end where it does, with a level of emotionality that’s unlike what’s expressed throughout the rest of the movie.

DS: For me, I couldn’t have ended it without that. The film is trying to strike a balance between the romanticized feeling of this great love that Mara has for Jo, which will never go away, and the reality of life carrying you away—life with a child carrying you away. Fourteen is about all the stuff that happens while the nice, clean narrative line progresses. And the other stuff has to have weight. The ending is supposed to crystallize the idea that all this other stuff is in balance with a powerful emotion. The ending fights it back, and then loses the battle against the eruption of the emotion.

[Film critic] Mike D’Angelo told me that he really wanted the movie to end after the story. I see it, but I couldn’t end it there. I owed Jo more than that, somehow. All my films have, beneath the surface, a kind of capital-R romanticism, which I then try to disguise with a million manifestations of the mundane.

EM: That reminds me of something you said in your piece on À Nos Amours, where you describe Pialat’s formal choices as “fiction dodging stratagems.” I’ve seen other commentators compare Fourteen’s approach to time to Pialat, but I also think what you’re describing, this romanticism that the film resists, but which it ultimately cannot hold back, is very Pialatian. He’s someone who possesses an almost repressed, or even self-loathing, romanticism, but he can’t clamp it down.

DS:  He tries so damn hard to keep it down. I was thinking about Pialat a lot during this movie. I’d arrived at a time in my life where I felt like I really understood Pialat, and I was thinking a lot about what I felt were the lessons of Pialat, which I didn’t really get when I first tried to use those rhythms. One thing that’s important about Pialat, which I tried to do, even though I couldn’t go as far as him, is how he throws things together that don’t fit, things that aren’t meant to fit together, that come from different places. He might throw together a piece from his life, a piece from Arlette Langmann’s life, or something the actors did when they didn’t realize they were being filmed, or something he provoked them into doing by breaking character. He’ll take all these things, put them together, and it makes you feel like the person is real in a way that you don’t feel when the character is conceived of in thematic terms.

I think that the discontinuity of people is far greater than fiction suggests. Fiction doesn’t give us easy tools to deal with how discontinuous we are. And Pialat realizes that. He recognizes that there’s a great danger in simplifying things away from reality. He’s scared to death of it, actually.

EM: What you’re saying brings to mind my favorite film of his, La Maison de bois

DS: That was Pialat’s favorite too…

EM: Oh was it? I didn’t know that. I’ve always sensed that it’s a movie that Pialat had to purge from himself, because it’s the most flowing and Renoirian, the least discontinuous. There, more than anywhere else, you see him unable to resist his own romantic impulses.

DS: Pialat said that the only two good films made since the liberation were Jacques Demy’s short film about the shoemakers of the Loire and La Maison de bois, his own movie [laughs]. But Pialat is usually brutal towards his own movies. In interviews, he does himself no favors. He doesn’t think his films work, and he says so.

EM: I’m also curious about the financing of your films. You mentioned that you made Fourteen while working your day job, which financed the movie. Do you anticipate self-financing your films going forward? Is doing so important to you?

DS: I self-finance completely, and I anticipate that I will continue to do so. But whether or not it’s important to me, I don’t know. I’ve never done anything else. I can imagine some fantasy situation where a patron comes along, offers money, and says, “Do whatever you want.” What I have trouble imagining is fitting myself into a system that requires compromise. Perhaps I could, on some level, but I think I’d sabotage the project before it even got off the ground. But I’ll try if someone wants to!

And there are certain good things about my style for a producer. I storyboard everything. I do cutting continuity. I don’t change my scripts very much. So if the financier is adept enough at reading the tea leaves, they can see exactly the movie that I’m going to make. It’s an opportunity for someone who doesn’t want any surprises.

EM: I find it surprising that you storyboard your films in advance, especially after just talking about this Pialatian discontinuity. Fourteen doesn’t read to me as a film that was storyboarded in advance. It has an off-handed quality that works in the film’s favor. How do you capture that while also storyboarding?

DS: A lot of that has to do with the actors. But the reason to storyboard is not so much a creative one as it is an emotional one. It’s a way of controlling anxiety, to tell you the truth, very much the way that I think Hitchcock needed to feel that he was done with a movie before it was filmed, that all he had to do was execute his plans. Really, the movie isn’t done, but I understand why it’s useful to think that way. I understand the anxiety that forces you to pretend that the film is entirely finished before you start. At every stage of the way, I’m trying to pretend that I’ve already done the work, and that all I have to do is flesh it out a bit.

Perhaps because of that, I’ve developed a kind of minimalist style. I was a math major, and mathematicians like the idea of an elegant proof. Minimalism implies not thinking about yourself in a way, which you can do when you follow a rigorous plan. So, it fits with my personality in some way.

EM: And minimalism suits the milieu. Fourteen understands the environments that young women like Mara and Jo would occupy. Their lives lack accoutrements. They’re simple. They move through life with baggage of the emotional variety, but very little of the tangible kind.

DS: You know, I saw Young Ahmed recently, which I liked a lot, and I saw the Dardennes doing the same thing in responding to the film’s situation that they were doing as far back as La Promesse. They don’t think twice about doing the same thing. They don’t obsess over doing things differently or striking out into new territory. Their style is pure response to something, to a situation. Not to a script, not to a theme. And I think I try to be like that myself. I never go in thinking, what can I do to make this interesting? I try to obey, to do justice to something when I choose shots and when I construct decoupage.