In The International Sign for Choking, writer-director Zach Weintraub plays Josh, who’s careful not to be perceived as an ugly American abroad when he returns to Buenos Airies, to scout out a documentary project and reconnect with a study-abroad flame—he even poses as a local when drinking with a pack of U-S-A-chanting tourists. But, self-effacing as Josh is (which is partly down to Weintraub’s underplaying), he still proves himself an intrusive, disruptive presence in other ways, like with his indecisive response to the attentions of Anna (played by Sophia Takal), another American staying at his rental flat. Weintraub graduated from NYU’s undergraduate film program in 2009, and splits his time between New York City, where he sometimes works, and his hometown of Olympia, Washington. The International Sign for Choking screens at 9:30pm on Tuesday, June 26.
Since this is a film about a guy who returns to Buenos Aires, ostensibly to scout out a film project, but really to face down director’s block and try to find an old Argentine girlfriend, and since the film features many local nonactors playing versions of themselves, I should probably start by asking you about your own history in Argentina, the genesis of this project, and how the personnel came together.
Yeah, the movie is definitely very intertwined with my own life and relationship with Buenos Aires. During my junior year at NYU I was really starting to hate film school. Plus, that’s sort of the time when most kids start to freak out about graduation and what their next step is going to be. I was just bummed out in general and wanted to bail on that environment for a while. I convinced the university to grant me an academic leave of absence and signed up for a super generic semester abroad program in Buenos Aires with students from a bunch of different schools all over the country. I was there for five months.
After getting back I did one more semester at NYU before graduating and moving to my hometown with [Director of Photography] Nandan Rao to make a feature called Bummer Summer. At some point during post-production—in the fall of 2009—I got the idea to make my second movie in Buenos Aires. It didn’t exactly seem feasible at the time but I started writing anyway. A couple of months later, and totally serendipitously, I was invited to screen Bummer Summer at BAFICI, the Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival. I’d found out about the festival during my semester down there and was blown away by it. It’s really amazing. So I got to go back for ten days, and of course as a guest of the festival wound up making way more friends than I’d made in five months as an anonymous student. That was an awesome experience. I hadn’t been down there in two years so it was crucial to see the city in person and it got me really inspired to keep writing. Plus, I was telling everyone about the project so it really started to feel official at that point.
After that trip I had a much better idea of where I wanted to shoot and with whom. I spent the next year saving up, re-writing, and emailing with the people I knew down there in preparation. I had met Sophia Takal at Cinequest just two months before going to BAFICI and we were really fast friends. I saw how good she was in Gabi on the Roof in July and immediately thought of her to play Anna, but it took me several months to officially ask her. I think I felt obligated to be “professional” and hold auditions or something like that, but I was totally kidding myself. I’ve actually never considered more than one person for a role. So at the beginning of February 2011, I flew to Buenos Aires with Sophia, Nandan (who’d always been onboard), and producer Bradley Smith (another Cinequest acquaintance). And that was it. We made the movie and came back mid-April.
One thing the movie seemed to capture really well is the difficulty of having a really significant connection to a place you’re visiting, even if you’re returning after a successful, prolonged time there—as Josh seems to be; he’s stayed in this rented room before, and his Spanish is good—as well as the problems of having an “authentic” experience while traveling alone, free of a girlfriend or study-abroad classmates or even a bunch of Australians from the hostel. So, how elaborate a backstory did you have in mind for Josh’s time in Buenos Aires? (And what, I wonder, is Anna doing there?)
Well, that’s definitely the idea and I’m glad that you got that impression, because it really has seemed next to impossible to feel a sense of belonging in Buenos Aires. The movie played at BAFICI this year and a handful of kids from the US would approach me after every screening like, “Holy shit, that movie is exactly how I feel.” But I don’t know what any of us are expecting when we go there. Of course it’s going to be hard! They speak a different language! It hasn’t been until now that I’ve really started to feel more at home with the place. I sometimes suspect myself of making the movie as an absurdly complex means of vindication. I’m the study abroad student that managed to fit in… four years later.
Anyway, developing elaborate backstories is not important to me. If an actor is really insistent then I’ll help them invent something, but otherwise I don’t bring it up. The Josh character is different, though, because in my mind we share the exact same past. He’s not exactly me, but we’ve gone through all of the same stuff. We both studied in Buenos Aires, fell totally in love with someone while we were there, and ultimately lost contact with that person over the years (although not as drastically in my case). Very little about the movie is truly made up. Some things that happen to Josh on his return trip are things that happened to me the first time around, like meeting some guys that skate but never really getting in with them. I even had this travel website that was going to pay me to produce a few short documentaries, just like in the movie. But I was terrible at it. I never even finished the first one.
Anna’s backstory is a little less defined. Someone asked about it at a Q&A, and Sophia and I both answered differently. To me, she’s just someone who is there for a semester or for a Spanish immersion program, and she came a couple of weeks early to get acquainted with the city. But there’s zero emotional information in that theory, so I can see why Sophia rejects it. She based the character on a friend’s experience that was a lot more elaborate.