David Spaltro’s “Things I Don’t Understand” is a beautiful, funny, and emotional film. Please read my review. Keep your eyes peeled for this one! Spaltro was generous enough to answer a few of my questions about “Things I Don’t Understand”.
Sheila O’Malley: How long was Things I Don’t Understand in the works for you, from writing to completion?
David Spaltro: In some ways it was a 10-year process. In my last year in school [at The School of Visual Artsl] we had to put together our thesis, a short, kind of what you leave school with as a calling card. I had a lot of hard times figuring out what I was going to make as my thesis project, but the idea of the hospice scenes between Sarah and Violet was my original thesis idea. Somebody researching death and somebody who is dying, their conversations. It read more like a play. I was too young to really pull it off so I put it aside.
DS: And after we finished the last film […Around, 2008], there was all this pressure, and it was a hard dark time. I sort of didn’t know what I was going to do next and I stumbled across these pages and I thought, “All right, as a cathartic exercise, no intention for it to be anything or to make another film, for sure – I’m gonna go back to these pages and get this stuff out.” I thought it was going to be this very dark angry nihilistic piece. I found those pages in October 2008 and by the time I finished the first draft in February of 2009 it was a lot more hopeful. It was funny to start with your feelings and ideas and philosophies at 22 [which is] when I first wrote it, and then go back to it four or five years later… and flesh it out with other characters.
SOM: One of the things that I thought was so striking about it is that it opens pretty dark. You have people talking about dying and you see her suicide attempt, but the overwhelming feeling that I got from the film and, forgive the word, but there’s a real sweetness to it, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s hard to capture sweetness honestly.
DS: There are all these rules people have when it comes to filmmaking or storytelling and about structure, there’s tone – and for me, especially stories like this that are about people – I find what I do and what I hope I do fairly well is find that human balance between something that is dark and something that is funny. People go through difficult things in life, people go through challenges, people need and people want, and people also find each other. We can have a moment where a character who is very scared of dying finally lets you know how scared she is of dying. You could follow that up and have dancing vaginas, and give it a moment to let it all breathe.
DS: I feel like you hit people with all this stuff and we can only take so much. You need levity and you also need seriousness, you need there to be conflict, but you also want the familiarity for these characters to breathe and to make decisions that are honest, and that you understand why they’re doing it. You get where they are coming from.
SOM: I know you edited the film as well. There are some cuts that I absolutely loved. Going from the dining room table to the afterparty, with the accordion-playing and the couple singing “When the saints go marching in” – it was hilarious. Can you talk a little bit about how you put stuff together?
DS: I am an editor by trade. It’s what I did as a job in the industry before I started making films. I worked post, and I’ve been cutting since I was a teenager. It’s the idea of building momentum and pacing. I worked in advertising where I did promo spots, and you do all these different forms and structures in editing, and you learn how to tell a story concisely using what you need. As I have been learning the trade of directing, not just working with actors, but shots and storytelling, editing becomes a final draft of the script. When I’m shooting, because of time constraints and budget, I know what I need. Even when I’m working with performances.
DS: Grace [Folsom] is extremely consistent. You give her little adjustments and she would do them. There are certain actors that need a little bit more work. Molly [Ryman] was great but sometimes Molly wasn’t as consistent. Having worked with her before, I knew I could get what I need and know what I can cut around. Or they’re telling me that we’re running short on time at this location. I can shoot in a way that I can get everything I need and know how I’m going to put it together. And also leave myself some slack in case I need to make some adjustments later.
SOM: Speaking of actors, I know that you’ve collaborated with a bunch of these people before, but how did you find your cast?
DS: I had worked with Molly on … Around and she was cast way back when. For a while we weren’t sure Molly could do it. She’s gone back to school, was working this job, and I think the challenge of the film – she wanted it, but at the same time I think she was scared of it. We put up casting calls for actors and we had actors submit videos. It’s New York City, it’s gonna be union or non-union, it’s low budget, there’s a million talented people here, and everyone has a mini-camera or a webcam or access to be able to do that. They can get a copy of the script, they can read the sides, pick a scene, pick a monologue, and send me clips. I think we got a couple thousand videos. From that, we narrowed it down to about 40 people to read for Violet and Sarah. A lot of people who read for different parts still ended up in the film. Even when you narrow it down to 30 or 40 people, you think, “This is gonna be easy, because just from the odds – some of these people are gonna be bad.” But they’re not. They’re really really good. You want to make 80 different versions of the film. I’ve always been very blessed and cursed with that. What ends up onscreen is that I get a lot of really passionate people, whether behind the camera or acting, and that’s how we’re able to pull off the stuff we pull off. I try to make the set a home environment with a family atmosphere.
SOM: Do you rehearse?
DS: Oh, yes. I’m a big fan. Some people are like, “Well, you’ll burn yourself out” or “It won’t feel real”. But I think rehearsal is a chance to talk with the actors. It’s about trying ideas, and especially on a low-budget film time is always an issue, even if you’re prepared. There’s never enough time. So for me, rehearsals are a chance to play around. Rehearsals are great to allow the actors to step into the role. The scene where Grace first meets Violet: originally, she was giving the speech about what her bone cancer was and she was supposed to flash her amputated leg, like “My leg got cut off” and Grace said in rehearsal, “No, I think she wouldn’t do that, I think she would be more shy about it. So what if I realized it was showing and then quickly fixed it …” And it plays.
SOM: It’s very moving.
DS: Isn’t it great? Grace worked so hard on that part and it’s such a nice moment and that’s something you do in rehearsal. Or the scene where they exchange the ankh. Originally she was gonna put it over Molly’s head, a nice little moment and for them to do it it was really awkward because of height and position and so it was like, Well, what if she put it on her wrist and then saw her scar?
DS: That’s another moment that the three of us came up with when we were rehearsing, and it ended up different from the way it was written. And that’s what you can do in rehearsal, not just “Say it like this” or just do it a bunch of times so you don’t forget it … It’s about finding these really cool things when you’re not like, “We have to shoot this now.”
SOM: It felt, especially with the unfolding scenes with Violet and Sarah as well as with Parker – those two sets of scenes: Each scene has its own isolated feel to it so you really feel these relationships are developing. It seems like rehearsal might be good for that, so that when you’re under the gun and on the set, you know, “This is the scene where we’re warming up to each other” or whatever.
DS: You’re shooting things out of order. The day you’re shooting, you realize, “Oh, we have to actually do this tomorrow” or we have to switch things around. That’s part of the skill of being an actor. You have to know how to work for the camera, and rehearsals do help with that because you can do it in succession. When I rehearse, I usually rehearse the scenes in order. We read through the scenes. I also do a table read. We did our table read six or seven months before we shot it, once we had the cast and crew, and we had everybody sit and read the parts. Just to read it all out together out loud and it’s funny, it’s almost like a welcoming party where everyone gets introduced. And you get to hear it out loud, and that also helps me in rewriting because we still have some time to do some tweaking. When you hear it out loud you can hear the pacing of it, you realize, “Oh, that was so much better on the page.” Or “They just said that, we don’t need to say that again.”
SOM: I wanted to ask you – you’ve mentioned Billy Wilder in interviews before– and obviously the lead character in your movie is named Violet Kubelick and I just wondered if there was a connection to The Apartment.
DS: The Apartment is my favorite movie and, yes, it is intentional. It’s funny, it wasn’t meant to be literal, like, “Oh, and she also attempts suicide …”
SOM: And there is also the real estate subplot, the whole New York apartment thing that is such a part of your film.
DS: The Apartment has these great humorous moments and it’s also very dark. So many dark things about that film, but it also has this sweetness, and this great love. You can show it to somebody today who is a very jaded filmgoer and there are these dark heavy realistic things and they would respond to it and you could also show it to a 75-year-old woman who is misty for a TCM classic movie night – the film can go either way. Wilder did all these different types of films, but they were all really good stories with great characters. He did Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, but he also did Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. Wilder was the kind of guy where you could tell it was his film because of the story and the people. But he could jump any genre he wanted to.
SOM: You filmed on a very limited budget. What is the biggest nightmare about that?
DS: Time. Time is money. I have always been really good at finding a good team of people that can do the impossible on a shoestring. I make sure that everybody gets paid, although sometimes the rates aren’t great. I wear a million different hats, and make sure that everybody knows what’s going on. My job is not just to have a vision, but you have to make sure that all these great people are working on the same page. What happens is, you have to make tough decisions when things have to be changed or compromised. A lot of times you make a decision, or the actors want another take, and they have to trust you on some level. You’re not just making the decision based on one or two things. You have to know everything, and you have to try to get what you really need to achieve.
SOM: How did you find all the locations?
DS: Door to door. We did a lot of preproduction. I think I spent about a year casting and finding the team but also doing the legwork. We were trying to get the New York tax credit which is how we funded the film and we shot in Greenpoint, because there’s room around there to park trucks, industrial areas. So we thought, If we’re gonna have a loft in Greenpoint, then let’s also find a bar in Greenpoint. One of our team had shot at this Christian rehab center upstate and we shot there for a week and made that the hospice. We didn’t have the church until the day we shot that scene. It was the last day we shot.
SOM: It’s such a beautiful shot.
DS: The church was amazing. I really wanted a church and I wasn’t expecting to get anything that great. When we were shooting upstate at the rehab center for the hospice, they had a little chapel which is what we used for the little funeral scene where Molly made her speech. And they were like, “We could make this the church” but … The church is in the beginning of the movie. If we’re gonna spend money on anything, I really want us to find a church. And the whole shooting was like, “When are we gonna get this church, when are we gonna get this church …” Until the night before the last day of shooting, the night before we were supposed to shoot that scene, someone said, “We got the church.” I hadn’t even seen a picture of it! So the first time that I’m seeing this place is the morning we’re shooting, and I’m literally the first one there and I’m not expecting anything, but I’m thinking, “Just let it have a walkway with pews. That’s all I need, a walkway with pews – and maybe some stained glass windows …” and I walk in and I see this rec room, it’s a bingo hall. How am I gonna make this work? And they tell me, “Go through that door. The bingo hall is just the front.” So I go in and the room’s dark and the guy hit the lights and you’re standing in this 1820s Gothic church. It was ridiculous, better than anything I could have imagined. We got it for next to nothing. Through hard work and persistence, it came through. That’s another trick: it’s not so much about compromise, it’s that you have to know what is worth fighting for. That was something where I knew we had to fight for it. It makes a huge difference in the opening.
SOM: What’s next for Things I Don’t Understand?
DS: We’re gonna take it on the road starting April 19. We’re going to Colorado first. We are submitting to as many festivals as we can. Between April and November, we have about 36 festivals pending that are both here, some abroad, one in Mexico, one in Australia. We’re going to take it as many places as we can while hitting up distributors and getting advance press. It’s like a band spending a year or two on the road, building up a fan base and then you release your first album or your demo and people are like, “How did that sell? You didn’t have a company putting out your record …” You did the grass roots legwork yourself.
SOM: The film plays great. I was really touched by it.
DS: The nicest compliment is that people enjoy it, and that they really get the film.
SOM: There’s something in it that really reminded me of being a certain age in New York at a certain time, and going to grad school and meeting all these awesome crazy people. Even with Sarah’s cancer and the pain that causes, it felt like really what it’s about is finding a family. Like that Thanksgiving dinner: they’re misfits, they’re damaged, they’re wandering the city by themselves in their own little dramas.
DS: Everyone’s had that orphan Thanksgiving. You spend one year in New York City you’ve had that experience. You get adopted if you don’t have a family or if you can’t afford to go home, or you want to start a new tradition, start a new life. You are spot on, it is really about family. The two films I’ve done have similar themes, they’re about home. My first film was about a guy – based on my life – he’s homeless and he’s trying to go to school, but it was about somebody trying to start a life, find their place and the idea of home and what that means in their relationships. And Things I Don’t Understand is a spiritual sequel to that, the next phase. You think you’ve found your home with these people but how do you transition when that stuff starts to change, and what is important to you, and how do you protect it and what do you do?
DS: I think sometimes in reviews – and they’re not wrong – but there are a lot of people who say, “The film is supposed to be about this.” Like the roommates trying to raise money for the loft. But my B-plot is more important than my A-plot. The film is really more about Violet and how these relationships emotionally rehab her and allow her to start making decisions for herself. And the same thing for her two roommates who are different but in some ways parallel to her. Both of them have their own stagnant growth, and that affects how they start to actually live, like, “Okay, for better or worse, even if I make the wrong decision, I have to make a decision. I have to live.”
DS: To me, that’s what the film is really about. It’s really not about death. It’s about life. And I think I found that out as I was writing it. The opening scene is very dark and other than realizing that I needed to have a killer opening – you need to have that first ten minutes to pull people in – I also started thinking, “This is going to be really dark.” I thought I had kind of lost it a bit. But in a way Things I Don’t Understand ended up being extremely hopeful and it says a lot more about me than anything else I’ve ever done.