I Always Come Out Smiling: an interview with filmmaker Christian PalmerMarch 15th, 2012 | Posted by in Interview | Movie Reviews | New Releases
t the beginning of William Never Married, the feature debut of writer-director-actor Christian Palmer, your first thought is oh boy, here we go again: talkie indie dysfunctional-relationship drama. In the first few minutes, a pretty but tough-looking young blonde breaks up with a drunk schlub, while above them New Year’s fireworks halo the Space Needle. He’s the kind of guy who thinks the best strategy for fixing his broken relationship is to try to make her laugh at his beer-fueled zaniness. She walks off and leaves him in the parking lot, and immediately rebounds on a bathroom counter with a man who, as far as we know, she’s never met before.
The man is Vince, or William—the distinction is never made clear—played by director Christian Palmer. After they finish having sex, there’s an excruciating scene where Vince begs piteously to spend the night. And then we get our first clue that we might be in for something a little different: Palmer cuts from the bathroom sex and the begging, not to an awkward breakfast scene, or whatever other indie drama clichés we’re conditioned to expect, but right to Vince’s post-relationship suicide attempt. The whole sorry, sad relationship takes place in our imagination. All we need to know is that it left Vince wanting to kill himself. So, wisely, that’s all Palmer tells us.
The following scenes in the psych ward threaten, once again, to drag us back into too-familiar indie drama swampland. But then something funny happens. No, literally, something funny happens, and we realize that we’re watching a film of a different color: not your standard self-indulgent downward spiral of self pity and indie hipsterism. Yes, we see the anti-hero almost always choose the most self-destructive options whenever he has options to choose from. But the downward slide is a bumpy one, and some of the bumps are, well, kind of funny. If Vince doesn’t see the humor of his situation, Palmer clearly does. And that humor, in tandem with some quirky editing choices, keep us interested and—and this is more important—entertained, as we watch in mock horror as Vince stumbles, falls, and keeps getting back up again.
Much of William Never Married takes place off screen. Like that first big cut from first bathroom sex to suicide, there are many elisions in Vince’s story. But none of them feels like a gap. Palmer is so adept at paying attention to what deserves attention, and skipping the kind of boilerplate that everyone in the audience is more than capable of filling in for themselves, that none of the fast-forwards leave us guessing. The result is a dark comedy that succeeds in showing difficult—even horrific—moments in a humorous light, without seeming to look down on or ridicule its characters. And the characters themselves, no matter how briefly drawn, have their own individual humanity; without even noticing, we fill in their backstories, too, with none of the drudgery of exposition.
Here’s my interview with William Never Married writer, director, and star Christian Palmer:
Charley Cvercko: Was William Never Married your first film, or have you done shorts, etc.?
Christian Palmer: William Never Married was my first feature. I’d been making shorts prior to that. My youtube handle is rockmecp. There are a couple on there. I was shooting on film a lot.
CC: On film? Not video?
CP: No, WNM was only my second project on video. Everything else was shot on 16mm. I’d been shooting and editing on film until 2004, when I made a digital short for The Film Company.
CC: At the beginning, WNM seemed like another generic indie relationship drama. But then I figured out it was a comedy. Not to pigeonhole it; I just mean that, at some point I realized I had permission to laugh. How much of that was intentional? Or is that just your approach to things?
CP: I didn’t set out to make a comedy, necessarily. When I hear a newish director announce that they’re making a comedy, it brings to mind so many terrible things. The worst of which is that I know in my gut that it’s not going to be funny. But this movie’s characters are so complicated, and I loved them so much. So when you love someone, you try and make them laugh even when you’re sitting on the curb the middle of their darkest hour. So no, I didn’t intend on making a comedy. I wanted to make a movie about a guy grieving for a relationship with someone who barely knows that he exists, a guy who wants love so badly but has this mortifying life that he can’t show anyone else. And it came out funny and sweet, because the alternative is so pretentious and shameful and embarrassing.
CC: You played the lead, right? William? Who’s usually called Vince in the film? What was that about?
CP: William is Vince’s real name. His mom calls him that at the beginning of the movie.
CC: So who’s Buddy Vowell, who’s credited on IMDb?
CP: That’s my fake actor name. I’ve done a few movies under that name, and wanted to keep it going. Terrible idea.
CC: So you’ve dropped that?
CP: Yes. I don’t even remember how it started. Probably as a joke, like everything.
CC: The narrative of WNM leaves a lot of stuff out; a lot of it seems to be made of the moments “between” the important parts. Like you cut from Vince and the bouncers in the bar to him in the bathroom with a bloody nose. Getting punched in the face by the bouncers takes place in the viewer’s mind.
CP: The script was much more nonlinear. The story started in the hospital and unraveled from there. It was constructed so carefully—too carefully. In the edit, I had to reorganize the narrative, but I think it’s a lot better as a result.
CC: The comics writer Scott McCloud talks about the spaces between panels; he says that’s were all the action is. The panels are snapshot moments between the action, which the reader has to imagine for themselves. A lot of WMN feels like that.
CP: Understanding Comics? I learned more about filmmaking from that book than anything else. The audience is smart, they’ll fill in the gaps. The “cause” is just exposition. What they think up is almost always better than what I’ve written. I had this idea, “following the heat,” which sounds ridiculous as I say it, but I was conducting energy in the edit more than following a storyline.
CC: Paying attention to the emotional points, not just how you’d planned it out.
CP: Right. As a side note, the bloody nose came from Vince getting punched out by a homeless guy that he insults earlier in the movie. I deleted that scene and it connected up with him screaming at the girl in the bar.
CC: So the effect is we imagine the bouncers getting rough when they eject him. That’s the McCloud space in that sequence.
CC: The therapy session scene seems to be kind of the heart of the movie. It’s the thing we keep returning to to keep us on track. Vince seems to be declaiming his manifesto to the doctor, attempting to explicitly explain his view of the world. And then we get to see how that’s workin for him.
CP: That scene is critical, because we get to see why he’s been trying so hard—not out of darkness, but because he knows that there’s a splinter of hope worth pursuing. And he catches a break.
CC: Yeah, that seems like the central moment, when he seems to state the theme: “I want to have a conversation about love.” Did you shoot that scene differently? A lot of the movie seems to be handheld, but that scene was like tripod-handheld: in handheld the movements are chaotic, but in that scene they were all right angles.
CP: Most of the film was shot with very static and technical compositions, with elaborate camera moves. That therapy scene had a big dolly move, and the energy just died in those takes. I don’t even think I knew Ryan [cinematographer Ryan Adams] was rolling when we did that scene with the tripod. Probably rehearsal. I found that material on a completely different tape.
CC: That scene feels very natural. Was there a lot of improvisation?
CP: It was all tightly scripted. Very little improv.
CC: You get some incredible performances out of your actors. None of them have that “I’m acting in my friend’s indie movie” thing that ruins ninety percent of indie movies. How much of that was casting, and how much was you just insisting on another take?
CP: Yeah, I’m really proud. In the case of the mom [Lori Larsen], we talked to more than fifty women, and my friend Tim Seiwerath found her at his yoga studio. She’s a Seattle theater fixture, real professional actor. She actually pushed me pretty hard, as an actor. Julie (the blonde) [Erika Mayfield] was my partner for four or five years by that point, so we hammered a lot out. But yeah, no special tricks. Cast well. Push hard. Work hard. More takes. You can really get into it when shooting digitally.
CC: With zero exposition, the scenes with the mom and the brother allow us to fill in Vince’s entire childhood. It gives us a lot of sympathy for him. The mom was awesome, by the way. “I always come out smiling!” Another statement of theme, could work as an alternate title.
CP: Ha totally.
CC: Your blurbs mention Cassavetes, but I was put in mind of early Van Sant. Have you seen Mala Noche?
CP: Yeah, but I was too young and stupid and wanted to make Reservoir Dogs II.
CC: Well at this point I think it would be Reservoir Dogs 3,957.
CP: For real.
CC: There were a lot of great character details: the line on the mason jar; the hair combing; the righthand drive—were any of these details brought by the actors, including yourself, or were you that careful in your scripting?
CP: The righthand drive is our Producer, Gil Ponce’s, actual driving car, which I love. The rest was pretty intensely scripted. We came up with the compulsive hair combing so any variance in hair style between shots could be explained. It’s funny how you worry about the wrong stuff when making movies. I knew someone who detoxed that way, with the line on the jar.
CC: Who do you think of as influences?
CP: It’s more about individual movies. For this one, I’d say Minnie and Moskowitz; the first hour of Husbands. There’s so many. Andrew Bujalski’s films. Lots of books. Buffalo 66. Nothing too obscure; I’m not a cinephile. But when I was a kid, I was really into horror and sci-fi. Again, standard stuff.
CC: Yes, Minnie and Moskowitz. Have you seen Mikey and Nicky?
CP: Haven’t seen that, Mikey and Nicky.
CC: Elaine May is kind of like Cassavetes, only with subtle comedy.
CC: I think you’d appreciate her stuff. I thought of Mikey and Nicky with a couple of your “setups,” like how we watch that whole painful process of him putting some street drunk woman to bed, then the punchline, as he runs out in the street looking for her: “Mom? Mom!”
CP: The mom is the happiest character in the movie.
CC: She’s cool with how things are. What kind of non-film things do you feel have influenced you? Authors, artists, musicians, etc.
CP: Hmmm . . . Music is probably the single greatest influence on me, creatively. I go through heavy phases of listening to certain kinds of sounds. Amateur photography, comics. My friends. Most of WNM was inspired by stories that one of my friends was telling me about her homeless father. I collect other peoples’ photos on a secret Tumblr and create a kind of lookbook for the picture.
CC: Yes, I can see the music, there are some interesting music choices on the soundtrack.
CP: Morgan [soundtrack composer Morgan Henderson] added so much to the film with his music. I’m blown away.
CC: You mentioned books. Are there any that immediately come to mind as very important to you?
CP: A co-worker turned me onto John Fante right around then. You Can’t Win has this effortless narrative flow that I was really into. I was re-reading a lot of Bukowski, but people roll their eyes if you bring up either him or Cassavetes.
CC: Yeah, I think they both have the reputation of being used as “instant cred.” OK, so what’s next? I see you have another title on your IMDb listing.
CP: The Oregonian?
CC: Every Day Is a Journey. IMDb has you as an actor and producer for The Oregonian.
CP: Every Day Is a Journey was a short that I made for Rawstock Film Festival. They made an episodic film, one director following the other, open-ended. I shot the fourth episode. It’s really good.
CC: In The Oregonian you’re listed as Handsome Dead Man. That’s gotta be an ego boost.
CP: Yeah, wearing the exact same costume as a William! It was an ego boost even being involved with that picture. We went to Sundance and I got to walk around with a producer badge while I had about $30 in the bank. I made another short called “Nightvisions,” which is on my Vimeo. I’m writing another feature called Endless Darkness, but I can’t talk too much about it. There’s a strong goth streak running through it, kind of a serious Addams Family.
CC: Does IndieFlix distribute “Nightvisions”?
CP: No, I didn’t submit. I never even thought to do that. It’s only been done for a couple of months. Time gets away from me.
CC: I understand William Never Married was a walk-in submission? Our first I think.
CP: Funny, yeah. We have zero idea what we’re doing. Our producer Wen Marcoux just brought it in. Plus she was soaked in blood, so . . .
And on that note . . .