BAMcinemaFest 2012: Dan Sallitt, Writer-Director of The Unspeakable Act

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06/22/2012 11:30 AM |

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Dan Sallitt, a local film critic and cinephile, is also the writer and director of three features, the most recent of which is The Unspeakable Act. It’s a coming-of-age story, you could say, about a precocious high-school girl from Midwood Park, Jackie (the marvelously droll Tallie Medel), who is very frankly in love with her Princeton-bound older brother. Her alienation from her peers, and the increasingly complicated relations among her quiet but close-knit family, play out with calm and occasionally hilarious rationality, in clean and judicious framings. The film screens at 9:30pm on Sunday, June 24.

When I interviewed Alex Ross Perry around last year’s BAMcinemaFest, I told him that “The Color Wheel is the best low-budget film about the reconciliation of a brother and sister since at least Cold Weather.” Now I’ll tell you that The Unspeakable Act is the best Brooklyn-made low-budget film about brother-sister incest since at least The Color Wheel. So, what were you hoping to explore with this central relationship?
There’s a pullquote for you… You know, you do wind up exploring as you develop an idea, but for me the origin of the idea is always some concept that’s exciting or uncanny, something metaphysical and large that you can then play down and cast in mundane terms. The character of the girl was where I started: she’s really an existentialist hero who has her own set of values that weren’t given to her by society, and she never really wavers in that regard. Then, after the initial thrill of conceiving that character, I started to work out a story on the mundane level, and at that stage there was the pleasure of exploring the way families work, and trying to find distinctive patterns that on some level are every family’s pattern. And also I wanted to deal with the way that we grow up and resign ourselves to problems and compromises that we didn’t envision in childhood, which maybe isn’t even a bad thing.

I also wanted to ask about the house, that wonderful, brightly painted Flatbush Victorian that the family lives in. First of all, where is it and how long did you have to shoot in it? And as far as thematically, what drove the choice to have this Brooklyn family live in such a spacious, idyllic single-family house? It seems to isolate them from the rest of the world, but maybe also, with its long, sparse halls, from each other.
The house is in Midwood Park, a little area between Ditmas Park and Midwood. It belongs to my friend Gil Shuster; some aging New Yorkers will remember it as the site of Brooklyn Woodstock in the 80s and 90s. We were very lucky to be able to shoot in such a perfect location. The shoot was 16 shooting days, some of them partial, maybe two-thirds of which were in the house.

Jackie, the protagonist, needed a universe of her own. Unlike most of us, she never had to look beyond that house as she grew up: she had everything she ever wanted right there. Some people have said that the house is a character in the film; I prefer to think of it as Jackie’s legend, as a fairy-tale-like space that she invests with her own history and mythology.

Jackie, as written and as played by the wonderful Tallie Medel, is fathomlessly matter-of-fact about big things, in a way that many around her seem almost intimidated by. It reminded me of Margaret, actually, another recent depiction of the emotional havoc wrought by unchecked precocity. But maybe she’s just a typical teenager, albeit one with a different fixation than most of her peers?
Yeah, both! She’s both extraordinary and normal. The film doesn’t work if viewers don’t eventually feel that Jackie is in the same boat as the rest of us.

Unlike Lisa in Margaret, Jackie never really causes any trouble in the world at large. She makes a big fuss at the beginning of the film over the visit of her brother’s girlfriend, but everyone in the family knows that she’s going to behave when the girl actually arrives. I think Lonergan gets a charge out of people getting in each other’s faces, and I get a charge out of people being really nice.

Where did you find your cast?
It was all word of mouth. I started early this time: it’s hard to cast a low-budget film properly, you need all the time you can get. Tallie was recommended by Joe Swanberg, who has great taste in actors. He’d never worked with her or met her, but he’d seen her in Daniel Scheinert’s films. Sky Hirschkron, who plays Matthew, the brother, is an old filmgoing friend of mine, who isn’t a professional actor but just turned out to have an exact bead on how I wanted that character to come across. Each casting story was different: with the mother, Aundrea Fares, I just saw a few pictures on a casting site and took a chance on calling her in; the sister, Kati Schwartz, I spotted in a play where I was checking out another actor; the therapist, Caroline Luft, has appeared in the films of my friends Shari Berman and Chris Benker.

On what did you draw when writing dialogue and mapping behavior for contemporary New York teenagers?
It’s a fusion of my own crazy ideas and things I’ve heard young people say over the years. Neither one would be enough by itself. I didn’t do a lot of research on how the kids are talking these days—I mostly went with my instincts. And then the actors would rephrase dialogue that didn’t fit in their mouths properly.

The movie is shot largely in stable set-ups, with a rather reserved camera—which oddly makes it stand out, in opposition to the “dirty realism” and shaky d.v. intimacy of many contemporary microbudget filmmakers. Is the look of the movie a conscious choice, or just a different filmmaker’s (that is, your) idea of neutrality? Are there any films you looked at for cues on how to shoot this kind of story?
I love a lot of those new microbudget films, but I’m older and my sensibility was formed in a different time. Instead of seeing Funny Ha Ha or Mutual Appreciation and having my life changed, I wandered into a double-bill of Claire’s Knee and Chloe in the Afternoon.

The static camera, I think, is the result of some minimalist instinct. I feel as if the most important elements of style are the ones you can’t avoid: what’s in the frame, how you frame it up, what happens between action and cut. For me, those basic decisions are the essence of cinema, and I challenge myself to work with rudimentary tools, with nothing to make you look better or cover up your shortcomings. It’s not a fit to the subject matter, it’s just the way I always do things.