We Figured Out How to Tell Stories: interview with filmmaker Jason TippetApril 24th, 2012 | Posted by in IndieFlix filmmaker | IndieFlix in the Media | Interview | Movie Reviews | Short films
ason Tippet’s 2009 short documentary “Thompson” is a love story.
Matt Thompson and Ryan Andres met as kids, in speech therapy. They bonded as outsiders from then on, a lifelong mutual-support society, each one in many ways the most important person in the other’s life. They stole stuff together, broke stuff, battled loneliness and boredom together, got into trouble and out of it together. Until suddenly, out of frikkin nowhere, adulthood.
Watching them begin to grow apart as life inserts a wedge, named Alyssa, into the friendship, is at the core of “Thompson.” We begin by laughing at their awkward Beavis and Butthead schtick—Tippet met the guys at his sister’s: they had crashed her party and were in the kitchen, digging in her freezer and microwaving all her microwavables—but very quickly he shows us their humanity. We sense the truth behind Ryan’s sheepish denial of calling in a bomb threat to get out of school early. We note that when Alyssa enters the picture, Matt begins wearing shirts with collars and spending less time with Ryan. We watch as Matt lays out his goals for us while Ryan struggles to articulate his future.
In the end, “Thompson” shows us that moment in all of our lives, when the decisions we make now, in the few months between high school and whatever comes next, will shape the rest of our lives. And it show it with great pathos and compassion, but even more humanity. And it does it in about ten minutes, credits included.
Here’s my recent interview with filmmaker Jason Tippet.
Charley Cvercko: The first question I’m sure everyone asks: where did you find these guys?
Jason Tippet: My sister Brittany threw a party while our parents were out of town. The boys showed up and started eating all our frozen goods. Hot pockets, corn dogs—yeah. They were above average at Guitar Hero. Especially with how much they were drinking. I was surprised by how sweet they were. From the beginning I saw very earnest people that didn’t fit my stereotype of the kind of person they dressed like—TapouT shirts—stuff like that. I can’t stand IFC. OH, I mean UFC!
CC: I think I’ll leave the IFC in, ruin your career as a filmmaker. Maybe I’ll change it to “Weinstein.”
So how old are you, Jason? I mean, how close in age are you to these guys who showed up at your sister’s party?
JT: Well, I’m twenty-five now.
CC: But at the time?
CC: So like four or five years older. They were still within your general age range. They weren’t like exotic creatures or anything. So did you recognize anything in them? Even as things you had chosen not to do or be?
JT: Yeah. I felt like Elizabeth [producer Elizabeth Mims] and I were in a privileged situation to tell their story.
CC: I’m not suggesting you were exactly like them, just wondering how much your impression was informed by where you were, as a person; if a sixty-year-old British woman documentarian would have had the same response.
JT: We wanted to tell a story about kids we could relate to in some way. I couldn’t relate to telling a story about a pregnant girl, or someone with anorexia. We wanted to make a portrait that most kids could relate to. I want to make films about what I know. That’s something a lot of writers I respect have always suggested. I think it can also relate to documentaries.
CC: Did your sister collaborate on the film? Or just in discovering your subjects?
JT: She introduced us and helped us get the filming process started. We couldn’t have done it without her. The boys were very hesitant. But they eventually got to know us and our intentions.
CC: How did you explain your intentions to them?
JT: I think we talked a lot about reality TV and showed them what we didn’t want to make. They thought documentaries were the same thing as reality TV.
CC: Did they have any fears that you were “laughing at them,” so to speak?
JT: No. We were around them quite a bit while the camera was off. Liz had to pull me back behind the camera because the first day we were shooting with them was the scene with the bow and arrow. I’d never shot one before. So I’d spend a lot of time participating before we’d film. I still keep in touch with Matt. Ryan kind of wondered off. I’m not sure they even keep in touch.
CC: At this party, they were actually microwaving a stranger’s frozen fast food?
JT: Yeah. I wasn’t happy at first. But later I got to know them. They have the ability to control a room. Thompson’s voice has a very high decibel level.
JT: Yeah. Matt is pretty bad about hiding how he’s feeling. I remember a few days before we met his girlfriend, he was having problems with her. He was very short with Ryan those days. That’s when we got that interview with Ryan talking about how he felt about Alyssa.
CC: Had you made any documentaries before “Thompson”?
JT: I made a short film that got me into CalArts. It was called “Jeff.”
JT: It was about a kid I went to high school with who had Lupus. He was an alcoholic who had problems with pills. He had a broken heart and worked at Michael’s Arts and Crafts with me. Eventually we both got fired.
I like calling them portraits. But I like “personality docs.”
CC: Yeah, I get tired of docs sometimes—there’s a difference between being told a story and being talked at. But I like portraits/personality docs.
JT: I don’t appreciate docs that are going back to tell a story.
CC: The educational style, with someone explaining something at you.
JT: I like stories in the moment. I think films like October Country and Billy the Kid and American Movie have really inspired me. I really wanted to work at making a documentary that felt like a fiction work.
That’s what inspired us for our new film, Only the Young.
CC: I’m not familiar with October Country. Is that also a portrait?
JT: Yeah. It’s SO GOOD. I got to meet them at True/False. Such sweet people. Huge fan of theirs. But, Chris Smith’s American Movie is what got me into making portraits.
CC: Cool I’ll look for it. But Billy the Kid blew me away, and American Movie is an all-time favorite. I make everyone I know watch it—that’s cool it got you into making docs.
JT: Yeah. I didn’t know it was possible to make a doc like that. It really made me realize what you could make films about.
CC: So what was your process with “Thompson”? Did you prod them? Or just roll?
JT: Elizabeth and I made a few rules before filming: The camera wouldn’t move; we weren’t going to lav them; and we wanted the film shot wide, like a western, or in two-shots, making sure not to overuse close ups.
It took us six months to make. We mostly just followed them. We’d ask them what they felt like doing and try and create a scene around that. We were editing as we were going. So, we were looking for specific moments as we were going.
JT: CalArts didn’t have enough cameras so we picked one that people weren’t using. Originally we wanted to shoot on film. This had a similar feel to 16mm we appreciated. Loren White, the colorist, really helped us out with achieving our look. He worked on our new film as well.
CC: The guys’ relationship changes substantially during the doc: the classic “two buddies and the Yoko affect.”
JT: Yeah. Those are some of my favorite narrative films. I also think I was going through something very difficult during college. I stayed in the town I grew up in while going to college. I had these eight friends I grew up with my whole life and they all left, splitting us up. Like from kindergarten.
CC: Do you think what you were going through affected the filming? Do you think you focused on things that resonated with you?
JT: I think it did. Or at least why I appreciated what the boys had. It was something very special some people never find.
When Ryan was expelled for calling in a bomb threat that’s when I knew things were going to change for them. Matt was going to go forward and the school system was going to dick Ryan around by sending him to continuation schools that weren’t designed to help those kids succeed.
They were outcasts. All they had was each other. Ryan lost his dad when he was young, and his mom didn’t pay attention to him.
CC: Right, and then his best friend, Matt, finds someone else who, bottom line, he prefers to spend time with. It’s just another in a lifetime of rejections.
I just watched Bad Fever. It really has a lot in common with the theme we’re talking about, all these categories he’s trying to find love in. It’s an incredible film, blew me away.
CC: So nine months of footage: why not a feature?
JT: I was in school. I learned a lot from this. It was originally 20 minutes, but a teacher told me it would have problems playing festivals, so I cut it down.
CC: I’m sure it concentrates the film’s power; every scene is necessary.
JT: It was probably necessary to cut it down.
CC: So what’s this new thing you’re working on? Can you talk about it?
JT: Only the Young is our first feature. I had a few more things I wanted to say about the town I grew up in. It’s a strange place to grow up. It’s another film about best friends.
CC: Have all your subjects so far been friends?
JT: Yeah. Two best friends. I love Old Joy. I’m a sucker for a good friendship.
CC: Yeah, me too! Similar story to “Thompson,” no? In a way?
JT: No. [Only the Young] is more of a love story. It also touches on religion and the abandoned places kids hang out at.
CC: No, I mean Old Joy. How is Only the Young a love story? And isn’t “Thompson” a love story too?
JT: “Thompson” is a love story.
The kids in Only the Young spend their time at an abandoned house. They have plans to build a half-pipe in it.
CC: Of course.
CC: I have a friend, he was homeless for a while, started turning tricks to survive. He’s hetero, but became desperate enough to fake it for money.
JT: That’s so crazy. That has a lot to do with my new script.
CC: What made me mention him to you is a talk we had recently. He told me that this experience completely altered his friendships. He says he learned how fake most male friendships are; that the artificial macho emotional distance is a choice. He says he feels more emotionally open to his friends now. Which, talk about making lemonade, you know?
JT: That’s so interesting.
CC: You’d think that kind of thing would make him more homophobic or something. Or at least scar him. But it became an opportunity for growth.
JT: Yeah. That’s what happened to my friend as well. Things turned out a little differently for him.
CC: Can you talk about that? Or leave it for the film?
JT: I should probably wait if that’s ok. I don’t like talking about things I’m working on.
CC: I usually ask filmmakers about other influences, other than film.
In college I watched a lot of kids spend a good portion of money on dollies and cameras—when they should have concentrated on characters and a proper story. Elizabeth and I spent six hundred dollars on two hard drives. We figured out how to tell stories with just two people.
Music . . . I’ll always have a love for the Blood Brothers. Brian Eno. Bon Iver, Kanye West—I think he’s so interesting. Nick Diamonds. He did original music for Only the Young. I’ve been watching a lot of Bob Dylan Interviews.
CC: Did he do a lot? I know there’s that Pennebaker film.
JT: No, he hasn’t done many. I don’t like doing them. You’re making this very easy though. I like this method.