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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Q&A with Zach Weintraub (director of The International Sign for Choking)

Working on a micro-budget, Zach Weintraub has crafted a poetic ode to the aimlessness of expatriate life in Buenos Aires that takes in a multiplicity of forms and tones: mystery, road movie, romance, and a beautifully lensed contemplative drama. Collaborating with a few BAMcinemaFest alums (actress Sophia Takal and cinematographer Nandan Rao), Weintraub—who serves as the film’s writer, director, and star—captures the feeling of being adrift as an unemployed artist in a foreign land, suffusing each moment with the protagonist’s longing for connection and his heartbreak over a lost love.

Weintraub spoke with us about the challenges of making a film in a foreign culture, his interest in mumblecore, and his views on Kickstarter.

The International Sign for Choking will screen at BAMcinématek on Tuesday, June 26, at 9:30pm. Zach Weintraub and Sophia Takal will be in attendance for a Q&A.


What films have served as inspiration in your work?
Studying in Argentina turned me on to what they’re doing down there in terms of movies, and a lot of it really blew me away. I generally use Lucrecia Martel as an example. I think she’s a genius. It often seems like sound and image are of equal importance to her, and there isn’t a lot of redundancy between the two. It’s not uncommon for dialogue to take place off screen, for example. There’s a lot of ambiguity too, not just in terms of the plot but in terms of the characters. And these are things that are common not just in her movies but in a lot of Argentine movies from the last decade or so. I admire them so much that I went there and tried to make one myself.

I’d also like to bring up mumblecore, because I think that the spirit of those movies is so inspiring, and it bums me out that a lot people insisted on being haters and focusing on the elements that they didn’t like. When that was first happening, that was the first time that it truly occurred to me that you do not need permission to make a movie. Just make one if you want to. No-budget filmmaking is not a stepping stone to me. I’m very happy doing things this way.

What are some of the challenges you faced while making The International Sign for Choking?
One thing that I hadn’t anticipated was how difficult it would be to evaluate the quality of a performance in a foreign language. During an early rehearsal we did a take that I thought was terrible, only to find the crew nodding and saying that it seemed fine to them. If they weren’t able to see the same negative elements that I’d seen, then how many subtler points had gone over my head? So anytime we shot a scene in Spanish I would really stress out over that, probably to an unreasonable degree. Even having spent so much time with the movie, and having memorized the inflection of every single word of dialogue, I can’t claim to understand it 100%. That’s why it was so awesome to have our first screening in Buenos Aires, because getting the positive reception that we did reassured me that the performances are at least “authentic.”

Shooting in two languages gave me so much to think about and subsequently feel anxiety over. There’s an Argentine character in the movie who speaks primarily in English. It was important to me that he be a sympathetic character, which I think is best achieved by his adorable accent. But then I can’t help but wonder whether that’s totally lost on a Spanish-speaking audience. And the reverse is true as well. Does my character’s accent in Spanish come across as adorable to that same audience?

Can you tell us about the process of choosing locations, how your previous travels inspired what locations you used, and any difficulties you encountered in shooting in Buenos Aires?
I had only been to Argentina once, for a period of five months in 2008, when I started writing the movie. And two years had passed, so a lot of the physical details of the place were already fading from memory. The part that I still felt most familiar with was the house where I’d stayed with a host family, so that became the central location. Early in the writing process I was invited back to Buenos Aires to screen Bummer Summer at their amazing film festival (BAFICI). It was really awesome and strange to re-experience the city. Every tiny thing I’d forgotten still felt familiar, like the different bird calls or the way you stand when you ride the bus. It all felt fresh again, so when I got home I was able to write the rest of the movie with about 80% of the locations already in mind.

That trip to BAFICI was even more critical because all of the friends that I made there would ultimately become involved in the production. Without them, it would have been impossible to do what we did. They loaned us equipment, gave us access to locations, introduced us to actors, and in several cases even acted themselves. I always joke that it was easier to shoot a movie halfway around the world than to shoot one in my own hometown, but it’s kind of true. Looking back, I don’t think that I was in any position to be orchestrating a production in a foreign country, but a lot of good things fell into place and it happened anyway.

I suppose that there were unique challenges, though. One time a group of teenaged street kids tried to steal our camera from the director of photography (Nandan Rao). I wasn’t around for that one, but apparently he landed a punch on their leader and they all scattered. That happened during our first two weeks in Buenos Aires, so we were always on edge after that. It didn’t help that we were constantly carrying around all of our equipment on public transportation in the middle of the night. Between Nandan, the producer (Bradley Smith), and myself there was a lot of speculation about the best way to bludgeon someone to death with a tripod or boom pole. That was probably 90% of what we talked about.

Kickstarter has become an important part of how many American independent films get funded. Can you speak about your experience using it (or other online platforms you’ve used to get your film made)?
I don’t think that crowdfunding is necessarily the long-term solution to our financial problems as filmmakers, but it has definitely been a nice solution for the time being. Two years ago, it seemed like every Kickstarter link was met with curiosity and enthusiasm. That’s no longer the case, though. I think that the novelty has worn off, so we’ll see what happens. There’s a huge amount of projects right now because people seem to look at crowdfunding as free money. But it takes so much time and effort, and unless your project has some sort of “viral appeal,” all of the money is going to be coming from people you know.

That was what bummed me out the most about using Kickstarter to fund my movie: in the end it was just my Facebook friends paying for my entire crew’s airfare. I wasn’t totally comfortable with that. Still, I don’t know how I would’ve gotten the movie made otherwise, and I’m really grateful that the website came around when it did. I just don’t feel like I could do it again. My guess is that when the dust settles, these crowdfunding platforms are just going to be a slicker, more efficient tool for doing what filmmakers have already done for decades: soliciting money from their family and close friends. Not a bad thing, but not totally revolutionary either.

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