Talking to Hellaware
Director Michael M. Bilandic
In Hellaware, which opens on September 26 at Cinema Village, Nick (Keith Poulson), a lethargic but ambitious art photographer living in North Brooklyn, is messing around on YouTube when he finds the video for “I’ll Cut Yo Dick Off,” by the Young Torture Killaz, a bunch of ICP-wannabe teenagers from Delaware. After he visits them with his platonic roommate (played by the Brooklyn-based indie filmmaker Sophia Takal), they become the subject of a photo series, as Nick, promising big-city exposure and Purple Drank, angles for a solo show at the new Bushwick space to be opened by Chelsea gallerist Olivier LaFleur (Gilles Decamps, never without sunglasses). A pointed satire of both insider and outsider art, Hellaware is the second feature from its writer-director Michael M. Bilandic, who lives in the East Village; he worked as a clerk at Mondo Kim’s while at NYU’s graduate film program, and as Abel Ferrara’s assistant after that. He answered some of my questions over email.
One element of the film, for me, is the newfound visibility of oddball subcultures in the digital age, and the protective diffidence or condescension with which young, hip urbanites shade their engagement with anything outside their own demographic. So I’m curious about your own knowledge of or interest in Insane Clown Posse, “rap-rock,” et cetera prior to this film. Was this kind of music always on your radar (say, prior to the Great NYC Media Juggalo Frenzy of the early 2010s), or did it fit into the project later in its germination?
I grew up in downtown Chicago and that culture was something that was always around. The midwest has a special knack for abject horror rap and scorched-Earth home-brewed entertainment. I’ve actually seen ICP a million times and even attended two of the earliest Gatherings of the Juggalos, one in Peoria, Illinois and another in rural Ohio. I always wanted to tell a story set in that world. The initial seed was planted when [the ICP song] “Miracles” came out and every art student and their brother started making these faux-ethnographic or super-aestheticized documentaries and art pieces with that backdrop. Like, “check out these exotic freaks.” Some of these projects were legitimately great, honestly, but it was that culture clash that provided an interesting and humorous jumping off point for Hellaware.
So, the process of actually writing the Young Torture Killaz songs, and shooting the standalone video for “I’ll Cut Yo Dick Off.” There is a very lo-grade, backyard feel to the video which is different from the film, and the music, for as much total shit as Nick talks about it, is pretty compelling in a sort of unfiltered terrible primitivist way (as distinct from the terrible faux-primitive drawings at the Brooklyn gallery show in the opening scene). Was the process of writing the music, and shooting the video, in any way different from the process of writing and shooting the rest of the film?
It was completely different. While the movie was shot by Sean Price Williams, an accomplished cinematographer, the music video was filmed and edited by a high school kid, Hunter Zimny. He came to us after being street cast as a robo-tripping druggie for an anti-cough syrup abuse PSA (no joke). He’s kind of a prodigy and has been consistently working on a bunch of indie movies since. I wrote the song and did the music with my friend Louie Miller, who is a bartender at KGB Bar. We premiered “I’ll Cut Yo Dick Off” on WorldStarHipHop instead of through traditional film outlets and it had a very strange life of its own.
Early on, Nick mentions Diane Arbus; I was also thinking of Larry Clark’s Tulsa and Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency as photographic projects which seem to depend on a mix of participation and intimacy, on the one hand, and artistic intervention and possibly exploitation, on the other. Is photography an interest of yours? Did you do much reading or thinking about the processes and ethics of “ethnographic” art photography?
Absolutely. Those names you mentioned would definitely be in Nate’s pantheon. People are obsessed with this notion of authenticity. They can never seem to get enough of the “beautiful loser” concept, the attractive misunderstood social outcast. I’ve been thinking a lot about the JT LeRoy scandal recently. Laura Albert, the woman behind it, is a total genius in my opinion. Everyone desperately wanted to believe the character she created was real because it was like a composite of all things “authentic.” Who could resist an underage, HIV-positive,West Virginia-birthed truckstop prostitute, petty thief, drug addict, with a sensitivity and proclivity for literature, who also parties down with Courtney Love and goes to the opera with Winona Rider? The whole story got kind of forgotten, or swept under the rug, because it was embarrassing in its implications.
Rusty, the head of the YTK, is a tricky role, and correct me if I’m wrong, but this would appear to be Brent Butler’s first movie. How was the casting process for the YTK crew?
Casting the rappers was definitely tricky. All the arty characters were basically friends or friends of friends who were completely familiar with that world. We didn’t have any Delawarean white rappers in our immediate circle so we had to reach a little farther. Brent is actually a talented musician in real life. I was impressed with his ability to rap poorly for the movie.
Keith Poulson brings a very distinct affect, sort of a mix of haplessness and bitterness, which I’ve noticed before in his performances (particularly in Bob Byington’s Somebody Up There Likes Me). Was the role of Nick written with him in mind, or did it evolve much once he entered the frame?
Keith’s awesome. He’s really funny, generous, and not like the Nate at all in real life. The part was not written with him in mind, though. And with different casting it could have gone a much darker, sociopathic way, which I’m glad it didn’t. His natural demeanor added a lighter, more humorous quality that actually made the character more complex.