Every Story I Tell Will Change: an interview with filmmaker Caleb Slain

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clearspacer Every Story I Tell  Will Change: an interview with filmmaker Caleb Slain

Untitled 12 Every Story I Tell  Will Change: an interview with filmmaker Caleb Slain

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mixed-bag queue of people wait their turn at the counter of what looks like a junk shop, chock full of an eclectic array of wares. One at a time, they tell the shopkeeper, an obnoxiously impatient man, what they’re looking for. Each person has lost something that’s important to them: a man in a bathrobe has lost his TV remote; a blonde partygirl her phone; a young man his virginity (Shopkeeper: “Get the hell out!”); a tense and tousled man his temper.

One at a time the shopkeeper finds what they’re looking for in his shop and returns it to them. (Mostly; a few of his customers are pushed aside to wait or kicked out of the store altogether.)

red Every Story I Tell  Will Change: an interview with filmmaker Caleb SlainIntercut with these first scenes, we see shots of a young girl in a hooded jacket, scarlet against the snowy landscape she’s running through. The camera follows her across a field, through a tunnel, and into the Lost and Found Shop, where she announces that she’s lost her favorite memory.

How to describe a memory you can’t remember? As the other customers, and even the seemingly unsympathetic shopkeeper, work together to help the young girl zero in on her lost memory, something almost magical happens: this disconnected assemblage of strangers, each one fixated on his or her own loss, becomes, for a moment, a community. Putting aside their own losses, they work together to help the girl remember and regain her lost memory.

The emotional impact of the memory, when they finally find it, cements their newfound connection with each other: it’s clear that this memory is one that none of them will never lose.

I recently had an opportunity to talk to Caleb Slain, the young director and co-writer of this powerful little film.

 divider5 Every Story I Tell  Will Change: an interview with filmmaker Caleb Slain

Charley Cvercko: When did you decide you wanted to make movies?

Caleb Slain: I started shooting and editing when I was eleven, but it was always a hobby. By age fifteen the hobby had grown into a compulsion and I began to pursue anything related. Acting, writing plays, directing high school news segments, etc. Before graduating high school I directed a full-length play and my first bona fide short film. It became clear that I was “here to stay.”

CC: Do you remember your first film?

CS: The very first? It was less of a film and more of a bumbly montage.

CC: How did you make it? What did you use to shoot, and to edit?

CS: I grew up very poor, in the roughest part of Grand Rapids, Michigan, so I didn’t really have access to computers or equipment. However, my uncle founded an ad agency and he lived a couple miles away. I would bike over every day to work with my cousin on a Sony handicam and iMovie. We were kids.

CC: Was it about anything? Or just edited images?

CS: No, I’m afraid it lacked anything resembling a plot. Basically it was footage played in reverse to look like we were Jedis; mixed with adolescent candid moments we thought were hysterical (they weren’t). Come to think of it, the first real piece was an elaborate short film I produced myself. It was a 22-minute episodic saga with puppeteered action figures. It was about a figurine who needed money to buy a toy bike and had to use five different forms of psychological manipulation on other increasingly complicated toys. I spent over 100 hours editing it. Obscene.

CC: So was that puppetry—real-time fx—or did you do any stop motion?

CS: I had two sequences of stop motion. But it was all filmed with creative puppetry. We used a Puerto Rican narrator, and music from the Ocean’s films. Classic.

divider5 Every Story I Tell  Will Change: an interview with filmmaker Caleb Slain

CC: Between that and “The Lost and Found Shop,” what did you learn from your own experiences in filmmaking?

CS: Good question. Basically everything. I watched other short films online, but most of what I learned came through experience. Writing, producing and directing short films, writing and directing a feature play, learning how to sweet-talk my high school and church into loaning me film equipment, etc.

CC: Schmoozing: so important in the film world. Can you remember an example, where something specific you figured out on one film became useful on later films?

CS: Something useful . . . I realized the importance of novelty and emotion.

CC: Could you elaborate on that?

CS: Anything worth creating, in my opinion, must include a novelty. Something different, something fresh and sparkly I haven’t seen before and want to share with the world. After that comes emotion. Not the sad/happy/scared kind of emotions—it’s far more complicated than that. I realized that people don’t remember what they see, or what they hear, or even what they thought . . . but they remember how something made them FEEL. I can hardly recall what the ravine next to my Grandma’s house looked like, but I remember exactly what it felt like to rush over the bank with my cousins, trying to stay upright as we hurtled to the bottom.

I decided I want to make stories with signature feelings, so when people are done with them, they never forget how it made them feel.

CC: That’s a great insight: film is like our memories, which are more like memories of how we describe a thing to ourselves, than of the thing itself.

CS: Exactly. Legendary editor Walter Murch explores the idea brilliantly in his book In the Blink of an Eye. Imagination is the most valuable resource on this planet. A resource being plundered by logic, definition and media. We aren’t given sparks to create from, or seeds to grow from anymore. We’re given the finished objects and asked how we feel about them, or told what to do with them. The committed storyteller must overcome our modern world. It’s something I struggle with every day.

CC: So novelty and emotion are pretty closely related, in the way you work?

CS: Novelty is the spark. It doesn’t need to have an inherently emotional component. For me, it is a means to measure a concept or story’s potential, and decide whether or not there is something worth sharing. The emotional component is the mystery—you can never know it at the beginning, but if the search is an honest one, you will find the “signature feeling.” It’s the love-child that comes from merging oneself with the novelty (or idea). You can’t control what it is, but you can find it and surrender to it.

CC: Can you think of any examples of works by another artist that have succeeded in doing that?

CS: Yes—but it’s all so subjective. These are a few that have connected with me:

  • Film: Magnolia
    If someone asked me, I can’t readily explain what the story is about, but I know exactly how the film made me feel. It’s a hurricane of human emotion, and the greatest character mosaic ever crafted.
  • Soundtrack: The Fountain
    I think it’s the greatest score ever composed. The tone and arc are so natural and pure, every time I listen it’s like watching someone be born . . . then slowly pass away.
  • Music: Godspeed You! Black Emperor
    In terms of filling music with a unique feeling, Godspeed is miles ahead of everyone. No music feels like theirs, or comes close.
  • Book: The Picture of Dorian Gray
    Reading the book I felt as though my soul was suffocating with his. I felt his world and his horrendous situation as if it were all happening to me.
  • Book: Fahrenheit 451
    As with Dorian, this book creates a uniquely dark and vicious world; brought to life by the humanity of its characters.

Perhaps what appeals to me most is creating a new world with real people, and finding a way for others to experience it with me, while still taking their own unique journeys.

CC: Is that where your writing starts? With the emotion? Or do you begin in the more concrete and let the emotion grow organically?

CS: Not usually. The feeling of the world is something you find as you sculpt the world, but without that discovery the world never comes to life. For instance, while writing “The Lost and Found Shop” I experienced a moment of unforgettable clarity while standing outside the Bitter End, a 24-hour coffee shop I write everything at. The original idea for the story was by my writing partner, Justin Hall, who had originally envisioned it being about an old woman who lost her memory, and everyone in the shop eventually sharing their own favorite memories. Anyway, I was standing outside having a cigarette, thinking about this little girl and where she could take the story, when suddenly it hit me: her favorite memory is the last time she saw her mom. A moment so comforting and beautiful for a child too young to understand the context, but heartbreaking for anyone on the outside. I remember standing there and just crying. Crying and crying because I felt the pain of that moment—I was present in the story. Then I went inside and finished the draft that night.

CC: It’s a powerful moment, more so in that it’s so unexpected; movie clichés condition us to expect something sweet and soft-focused.

CS: For me, it’s finding that moment when as a writer you feel the world you are building. You cheer and weep with the characters as they discover themselves, and you give them a hand when they’re in a tight spot.

divider5 Every Story I Tell  Will Change: an interview with filmmaker Caleb Slain

CC: Back to more mundane things. How did the actual production of “The Lost and Found Shop” come about?

CS: I was only nineteen, so I had no idea how we were going to pull it off, just that we were. I stole a bottle of wine (because they wouldn’t let me buy it) and brought the script and the gift to Aaron Smith, the producer for a production company called Gorilla Pictures, and asked him for his feedback.

CC: Did you write it on your own impulse? Or was it in response to a contest or a festival or something like that?

CS: It was for a contest. The Doorpost Film Project (which “Lost and Found” became a finalist in). By the end of our meeting, Aaron liked the script so much, and thought we could do well in the competition, that he wanted us to use Gorilla’s RED cameras and coproduce it with them. They gave us a thousand dollars to cover food and lights, and then we did torrential pre-production for over a month.

CC: So then what came next? Casting? Storyboards? What was your process?

CS: To be honest, it was nearly two and a half years ago, so my memory isn’t all it could be. The main thing we focused on was building a shot list, figuring out how to pull off the memory-player gag, and finding a badass location. I had worked with Alana on a short commercial and thought she was brilliant, so I wrote the role for her. I met Joe Anderson (the Shopkeeper) in high school when he would come as a guest to teach us improv. So there was a bit of casting, but the actor pool in Grand Rapids is very small. Especially with no money. Our options were very limited.

CC: And the others: friends? Friends of friends?

CS: We craigslisted for a couple small parts, but most of them were people I knew. Some by association.

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CC: Do any of the characters have backstories? They’re all so well realized.

CS: Actually, some of the backstories were so fun and extensive, they deserved their own film. Mr. Koons had the best. The Shopkeeper’s was the longest—a few pages or so.

CC: I could sense that; they seemed better fleshed out than one would expect. What was Mr. Koons’s backstory?

CS: Basically he became a millionaire from a software start-up, but never had friends or any real family. He insulated himself from the world in pursuit of a rather bizarre hobby…it’s complicated.[1]

CC: How about the Shopkeeper? Explain your decision to make him a jerk, for want of a better word.

CS: He is there for the same reason as the little girl. He took over the shop ten years before the short film takes place, waiting and waiting for the thing he lost: his child. The look on his face after he watches the girl’s memory is a very specific one. It’s a look of recognition—he connects with her.

CC: So along the way, he forgot how it felt? He seems to have lost any sympathy for the others. Maybe that’s what he lost: his empathy

CS: Great guess. He definitely doesn’t want to be there. Or deal with the customers. But that was the pact he made with the Founder when he took over. And as you can imagine, he deals with bumbly, clumsy people losing things every day.

CC: You framed it as real-world, concrete, instead of more fantastical, even though it’s essentially a fantasy. How much of that was conscious on your part, and how much was dictated by the location and the actors?

CS: It was a very conscious decision. I had used Big Fish as a reference point to people for what we DON’T want. I didn’t want a big fantasy world because it wouldn’t feel real to me. I wanted it to feel exactly liked reality . . . tweaked. The whole world is just as you know it, with this one exception—and the lost and found shop is just as normal as a hardware store. It’s just a part of life. I saw Pan’s Labyrinth when I was seventeen and fell in love with it. I didn’t want to make something that aesthetically dark, but with the same dark undertones.

divider5 Every Story I Tell  Will Change: an interview with filmmaker Caleb Slain

CC: If you had to, could you sum up the theme, the message?

CS: In all honesty, the meaning has changed many times for me. What it was about while writing was different when it ended, and different now. And if I’m doing my job right, the meaning of every story I tell will change over time.

CC: Yes, I agree: the meaning of any piece of art is more a function of experiencing it than creating it.

CS: But I think something that’s always been there is the idea of subjective tragedy. We look at that memory and see something horrifying, but a little girl sees the best thing she can remember and wants to hold on to. We live out our lives with tunnel vision, without perspective on the experiences we cope with and tolerate. Sometimes they’re just the norm, no big deal, where someone else would be destroyed by them. Which is why I dislike the words “message” or “moral.” I don’t have any more authority on these things than the next person, but maybe through sharing a raw idea—a spark—someone can catch it and make it into something new.

CC: Any advice for young filmmakers? I’m sure you get that question a lot.

CS: Boy . . . that question scares me. Advice is a huge responsibility, and I don’t know if I’ve earned it. I couldn’t have done anything without a team that believed in me. What we did should not have been possible. It is IMPERATIVE that a young filmmaker begins to build a community of trust and love. Otherwise you will be reduced to run-and-gun commercials and youtube videos for a long time. Also, no one will ever give anything to you. No one will come along and make it happen. But if you let go of all fear, and rush forward knowing you will fail, people always always always swoop in to your aid. No one can catch you if you don’t jump.

CC: What’s your next project?

CS: My latest completed film just world-premiered at SXSW, which I came back from a few days ago. It also received a staff pick on Vimeo. It’s a cinematically stunning documentary that follows a man who previously counseled people through degenerative diseases, as he comes to grips with the unusual disease eating away at his own body. You can see it here [Ed’s Story: It Ain’t Over http://vimeo.com/20249114 ], although it’s worth noting that I did not have control of the final edit. Unfortunately my director’s cut is not publicly available, which is a little less . . . on-the-nose. Needless to say, it was an educational experience.

My next two films are being mixed and colored: releasing soon. Thankfully I had full control over these.

CC: Do you have any dream projects on the back burner somewhere?

CS: I want to adapt The Picture of Dorian Gray, and have countless other ideas “in development” (the mandatory stage between total bullshit and normal bullshit). Most of my dreaAm projects are big: I don’t want to direct indies. I want to tell big stories in vast worlds. It’s a hard pill to swallow when you’re starting off.

CC: Dorian Gray has a lot of potential. Treatments often soft-pedal the gay undertones: a man leading a secret life.

CS: Sure, although I don’t think Wilde consciously inserted those undertones. I think the themes were simply influenced by the experiences in his personal life, but don’t necessitate an overt acknowledgment.

CC: That brings us back to the importance of individual interpretation.

CS: Yeah, that’s why I focus on unlearning and forgetting everything. I hate how-tos. I don’t like knowing too much about what I’m doing.

CC: Yes, I’m a big believer in reinventing the wheel too, especially in art. You’re far more likely to come up with something fundamentally original if you’re not following a Painting for Dummies book or something; so many of those guides are more about how NOT to do something.

CS: Agreed. It’s about honoring the artists who came before you, and evolving the craft. If you aren’t contributing to evolution, you’re reducing it.

divider5 Every Story I Tell  Will Change: an interview with filmmaker Caleb Slain


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. For Mr. Koons’s complete biography, see the Notes.[1]
NOTES:
  1. The only thing worse than living in poverty is living in opulence and nobody knowing. Such is the curious story of Melvin Koons. Having pioneered a revolutionary software breakthrough at 19 years old, Koons became a millionaire over the following odd years.

    Always an introvert, and having no immediate relations, Koons life resembled that of a minimum wage employee. If not for his bi-monthly excursions to Bergen, Norway, where he carried on his lifelong search for Leprechauns. If someone ever inquired of Koons about the impractical location of Norway for Leprechaun hunting (which no one has) he might give them a long explanation of the “migratory process of Leprechauns,” and cite evidence such as “all-time lows in Ireland-based Leprechaun sightings.” It was during one of these very treks that Koons lost something of great value…

    But what compels a man of magnanimous affluence to brave oceans, mountains, and wilderness in pursuit of mythological creatures famed for their gold? Having reached the conclusion that 400 years of “pot-of-gold-giving” must have taken a harsh toll on Leprechaun economics, Koons converted his entire estate to gold, and thus began his venture to introduce a vast stimulus package to the Leprechaun community.

    During his most recent journey, Koons had a large quantity of gold stolen from Norway’s Alkoven Guesthouse. Unable to speak Norwegian, and lacking the social skills to communicate with local authorities, Koons became enraged for the first time in his life and consequently lost his temper.

    Fearing the worst, Melvin Koons immediately departed for the states in hopes that a decent soul might have discovered his temper and graciously shipped it to his local Lost and Found Shop…

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