Cannes Film Festival
24th Cinéfondation 2021
BILL AND JOE GO DUCK HUNTING
Joe and Bill go hunting for ducks.
Hi Auden, thank you for talking to TNC, how have you been keeping during these strange Covid times?
Thanks for reaching out! I think I was really quite lucky throughout COVID since I was finishing my MFA at the University of Iowa and so had both a steady teaching job as well as my thesis to keep me busy. In a strange way, the pandemic actually opened up my whole life in Iowa City and it wasn’t until this past year, my third year, that I actually began to feel like I lived here. Without the usual places to go or meet up with other people I was forced to explore a lot more and do a lot more outside.
Have you been inspired to take on any new creative opportunities?
While I’m still technically enrolled as a student I’ve been rushing around to take advantage of the resources I have here--particularly the equipment. I’ve been working on a few projects, including a collaborative web series with a group of filmmaker friends, a series of dance films with choreographer Stephanie Miracle and composer Ramin Roshandel, and also an experimental film on 16mm. I’m excited to move into the post-production for these projects, as well as writing for another project later this summer, when hopefully I can work in a slower and more focused manner.
How much did your 2016 Fulbright Scholar experience help you on your filmmaking journey?
The Fulbright Scholarship really was one of the most fortunate opportunities I’ve had and I doubt I’d be doing the things I am now were it not for that. I originally went to Tallinn, Estonia for the Fulbright in 2016 to work on an animation under the mentorship of Priit Pärn. The Fulbright is one year long, but I quickly became attached to Estonia and the animators I met there so I ended up staying to get a master’s degree from the Estonian Academy of Arts. Before Estonia I really did not have much connection to other animators or filmmakers in general, especially since I had not studied film or animation formally before that. But, both working with Priit--who has a very unique and rigorous pedagogical method (as well as a very weird imagination)--and also being among such a wonderful group of animation students was inspiring and made me feel like a bit less of an imposter. I suppose without that experience I also might not have had the gumption to try live action filmmaking either.
Do you ever get nervous ahead of festivals like Cannes?
That’s funny since I’ve never been in a festival “like Cannes”... But, yes, of course I’m a bit nervous and really have no clue what to expect. With that said, I prefer the nervousness of stepping into something blindly to the nervousness of anticipating exactly what awaits. In 2020, right before the pandemic, I had a film in Slamdance, which was the first larger festival I was able to attend in person. Luckily two of my good friends--Philip Rabalais and Julianna Villarosa-- also had films in the festival and so going together mitigated a lot of the anxiety. Philip and Julianna both worked on “Bill and Joe” as well and, although Julianna can’t make it to France this summer, Philip and several other cast and crew will also be with me in Cannes. So at least we can all be nervous wrecks together.
Congratulations on Bill and Joe Go Duck Hunting being selected for the 24th Cinéfondation, what does it mean to you to have your film part of this year's festival?
It’s an enormous honour! Especially since so many filmmakers I admire have been in previous editions of Cinéfondation or have served as jury members. As someone who is used to making animations very slowly and all alone, it’s also very humbling to work on a live action film, which is inherently a collective effort. I’m always struck by how directing live action films is more a matter of noticing and curating other people’s talents than a matter of manifesting a tightly controlled order. All this to say, I hope the cast and crew of the film--as well as the cast and crew of all the other films in the selection--feel as honoured as I do.
Can you tell me how Bill and Joe Go Duck Hunting came about, what inspired your screenplay?
It’s a bit of a mystery to me how this film came about and the experience of writing it was unlike anything I’ve had before. It literally came to me all of a sudden and, after I had jotted down a short treatment, I did not change it in any significant way from preproduction to post. In retrospect, I think Kelly Reichardt’s film “Old Joy”--a film I absolutely love--was a large influence on the character dynamics and aesthetic sensibilities of the film. The characters’ names were shamelessly stolen from another wonderful film--an experimental film by Philip Rabalais’ (my cinematographer) called “Bill and Joe Burn Their House Down.” Also, I recently remembered a “Far Side” comic I read as a kid that I suspect must have had some deep subconscious resonance…
Was there any one scene that was tricky for you to film?
The scenes on the boat were quite annoying to shoot, since it was very cold and windy that day. I was also terrified that some piece of equipment or--worse--some person might fall in the water. The recreational services at the University of Iowa had generously lent us some camping gear, including a camp stove and percolator, so at least we had hot coffee, but, nevertheless, it really was quite unpleasant. I don’t know how to thank Ben, Alex, Julianna, Philip, and Michael for putting up with it all in exchange for some very mediocre cold sandwiches and coffee.
Is it hard to not get too attached to your screenplay and do you allow yourself flexibility or do you like to stick to what you've written?
I tend to spend a lot of time in pre-production, generating far more ideas than I need, weeding out the weak ones, and often developing several different treatments alongside and against one another. I also spend a lot of time playing with structure on an abstract level and also soliciting rounds of feedback from other filmmakers. This is largely a result of my experience as an animator where you essentially need to have the film edited before you even begin animating so as to avoid wasting hours or days drawing something that might get cut out.
“Bill and Joe” was perhaps the most notable exception to my normal writing process and came to me all at once and without any obvious source. Recently I found the notebook in which I jotted down the idea for the film and I was struck that it was basically a synopsis of the finished film. Nothing had changed. Running with one’s first idea is a method I generally avoid (and a method from which I tirelessly dissuade my students!) but, in this case, it felt like an inalterable whole that did not need to be challenged by my usual gauntlet of alternate possibilities.
I did write a conventional screenplay for “Bill and Joe,” but I used it more as a way of thinking through the structure and pacing and not for the actual shoot. I never showed it to the actors. It seems to me that, when working with untrained actors, the best results occur when one casts very carefully and then has the actors use their own words and motives to arrive at simple emotional beats necessary for building a scene. Unlike animation, my emphasis on preproduction for live action films seems to be less a way of maintaining absolute control and more a way of building a structure for others’ talents to do something spontaneous, as well as a way of thoroughly exploring a field of possibilities so that I can remain as efficient and flexible when shooting.
'So I would say the best thing is to find some friends--filmmakers or not--who want to make movies and then just make some movies with the resources at hand.'
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
Not really, though it’s strange I didn’t get into it earlier. I worked in a number of artistic media before I came to film--drawing, printmaking, painting, and, most of all, ceramics. At some point, I suppose I got a bit tired of the rigidity and stasis of ceramic sculptures and began working on a claymation. From there I moved on to other experimental animation projects which were all more or less ways of making other static artforms move around. My transition into live action films was a bit unexpected for me, even when I got to the University of Iowa. I really had no idea what to expect coming here, but found a very supportive and down-to-earth group of friends and mentors who were willing to help a clueless animator like me and were also open to teaching me a thing or two on their own sets as well. Most of the folks here are a bit more oriented towards experimental film, but I like being part of a group where our aesthetic interests diverge a bit. I’ve certainly learned more as a result.
Has your approach to your films changed much since you started making films?
I like to work on many different types of films and have continued to make animations as well, which necessarily involves a different approach to filmmaking. Moreover, the opportunity to try different approaches to filmmaking and the process of discovering the effects of these different approaches on the end product is precisely one of the things that keeps me interested in filmmaking. So it’s a bit hard to pinpoint how my approach has changed in any grand overarching way.
With that said, when I first started out, I think I was very micro managerial, megalomaniacal (which was somewhat acceptable for a solo animator, I suppose). More and more, though I tend to think of creative control as something more curatorial than strictly creative--directing as a matter of setting up possibilities rather than dictating actualities. It’s a bit like shifting my attention from playing a game to thinking first and foremost about the rules of the game. Now I pay much more attention to acting methods, actors’ temperaments, paces of working, collaborative arrangements, critical feedback processes, social chemistry, rather than just trying to steamroll through the whole thing and arrive at the preconceived end product. I’m also no longer afraid to let a project take as long as it needs, which is invariably longer than one thinks or usually wants.
Is there any advice or tips you would offer a fellow filmmaker?
For a few years I worked alone on animations and did not know very many filmmakers. It was a bit like “writing for the drawer.” I learned a lot this way, but I think I became much better at filmmaking once I started to work on other people’s projects, to watch films with them, to talk and argue about films. So I would say the best thing is to find some friends--filmmakers or not--who want to make movies and then just make some movies with the resources at hand. Fancy gear and even technical skill is more or less negligible compared to a group dynamic based on trust and curiosity. It’s what makes mutual inspiration and constructive debate both possible and enjoyable enough to keep doing.
And finally, what do you want audiences to take away from Bill and Joe Go Duck Hunting?
A very particular and very quiet state of mind. I don’t quite know how to describe it, but I suppose that’s why I made the movie in the first place. Some of "Bill and Joe’s" filmic influences--certain Kelly Reichardt or Andrei Tarkovsky films--might give you some idea of the feeling I’m after, though those two are a pretty tall order.