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.
Your movie is a contemplatively paced movie based around subtle incidents, and much of the dialogue is subtitled. How’d you fund it?
The thing is that it’s a way cheaper movie than one might think. I don’t want to get much more specific than that, because then the budget becomes this thing that everyone focuses on, whereas it’s actually pretty irrelevant. But I will answer your question! I did a Kickstarter campaign that wound up covering everyone’s airfare, and then the rest was a combination of some money that I’d saved up at a desk job, as well as some that I’d made by selling Bummer Summer. I’m not big on fundraising. I love sharing the work with audiences and I’m delighted when people seem to identify with it, but the bottom line is that they’re personal projects and so it seems appropriate that I should have to pay for them. Even doing the Kickstarter thing was an uncomfortable experience, because it was really just my friends and family that were donating and they certainly don’t owe me anything. That being said, I’m sure that if someone with the means actually did offer me money with no strings attached, I’d take it in a second.
I and the person I watched the film with both assumed the shot through the cab windshield, about 25 minutes in, was a Happy Together homage. What did you watch, and take cues from, for this story of a guy who’s a little lost on the other side of the world?
Ha, that definitely wasn’t intentional. I mean, it’s a fine idea, but Wong Kar-wai is on such a different level stylistically that an homage would never have occurred to me. I did watch Happy Together pretty early on in the writing process, just because I hadn’t seen it and it seemed like an obvious choice, but I don’t remember being influenced by it in any specific way. Maybe the bright colors, I don’t know. It’s hard to talk about influences because most of the time they’re too subliminal to actually pinpoint. I actually watch a lot of Argentine movies as part of my weird, unfounded obsession with the country, and a lot of what they produce is incredible.
For example, I paid close attention to Celina Murga’s Ana y los otros while writing my movie because the plot has a lot of similarities. Well, it’s not too similar, but enough so that I was able to look at what was working and learn from it. And then a few years before that I saw a movie at Lincoln Center called El otro by Ariel Rotter. At the time I don’t remember getting too excited about it, but I found it online and re-watched it recently when I was just starting to edit and it blew me away. I was actually glad that I hadn’t seen it right before shooting because I would’ve stolen everything from it. But in both of those movies you have these mysteriously despondent protagonists who are away from home, and there’s a lot of ambiguity about who everyone is and what happened before. To me, that’s the most important lesson that I’ve learned so far as a filmmaker—is how to use ambiguity in a hopefully interesting way—so I guess the fact that I shot my movie in Argentina just makes it one big homage to the stuff that I took cues from.
I should probably also ask you about the significance of the title.
I just think it’s funny. The protagonist is figuratively choking in the sense that he’s blowing it with everything that he does, and then the movie takes place internationally. That’s all there is to it. I think I’m attracted to more joke-y titles because I want people to know that I don’t take myself too seriously. The stupid part is that I made this bilingual movie, and yet the title is untranslatable. Everyone in Argentina was completely baffled by it. I think that they thought it was pretentious, whereas it’s actually just a corny joke. But the movie has a couple of small things in Spanish don’t quite translate either, which I like. It feels appropriate considering the subject matter.