Rooftop Films: Talking to Bob Byington about 7 Chinese Brothers and Jason Schwartzman’s Dog

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05/27/2015 9:00 AM |


With summer arrives a new season of Rooftop Films, bringing new indie features, docs, animations and shorts to rooftops across Brooklyn and Manhattan, along with Q&As, live music and receptions. The first feature of this year’s program, 7 Chinese Brothers, screens on Saturday night at the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus; bands play before the movie, which is followed by a party and Q&A with filmmaker Bob Byington and star Jason Schwartzman. The film, which takes its title from track 2 on Reckoning, has something of the underachiever’s charm of 80s and 90s indie rock. Schwartzman stars as Larry, fired from a restaurant in the opening scene for stealing booze, and over the course of the movie growing sputteringly dissatisfied at his own half-assed efforts in most things—learning Spanish, romancing his boss (Eleanor Pienta) at the lube-job place where he finds work, visiting his equally borderline-alcoholic grandmother (Olympia Dukakis)—though not in his ownership of his dog Arrow (Schwarzman’s real-life dog, playing himself). The writer-director is the Austin-based Byington, whose last film, Somebody Up There Likes Me, was more overtly absurdist, but similarly drily funny and well-acted in surveying the efforts of the lazy Sisyphuses who populate his film. Byington answered a couple of questions of mine over email.

In this film as Somebody Up There Likes Me, there is a sense of droll comedy that comes from watching things work out poorly for the protagonist. This is ironic in some senses, as they’re definitely shat upon by the world, but Schwartzman here, and the great Keith Poulson* and others in the earlier film, also act in self-defeating or selfish or indifferent ways. So I’m curious about the moral universe your films exist in. Is the universe of 7 Chinese Brothers arbitrary and capricious? Is it actively unfair? Is it actually just? [*in transcribing this question, Byington appended the epitaph “the great” before my mention of the always-enjoyable actor Keith Poulson, star of Byington’s previous film; his addition is retained here -M.A.]

The universe of the two films isn’t actively unfair. Is life absurd? Yes. The tone of Somebody is that of a fable, it’s literally fabulous, while 7 Chinese Brothers clings more superstitiously to naturalism. Strange things happen, but not too often. We could have put subtitles across the dog sometimes and perhaps should have. Perhaps an impish overseas distributor will?

Obviously this is an Austin movie in that it was shot there and you presumably benefit from living and working in a city with a strong independent film culture, but do you see the stories you tell as strongly linked to a sense of place (either Austin or, for that matter, anywhere else)? Is Larry in any way a specifically Austin character, like we always describe, say, the randos of Slacker as being?

I’ve made all these movies in Austin and there’s a rhythm here that’s not the rhythm of, say, New York. We showed [Byington’s film] Harmony and Me at MoMA in 2009 and the first question afterwards was “what’s in the water in Austin?” It was a friendly question, but usually when viewers are frustrated by the pacing of the film they’re speaking to the pace of Austin’s culture, which I’m too immersed in to really notice. I need to make a film somewhere else, of course, but am too comfortable here.

Larry‘s relationship with his grandmother, his “only surviving relative,“ as he says more than once, is suggestive. Did you and Jason Schwartzman think about Larry’s backstory, together or separately, more specifically than we get in the film?

Not so much—while Jason asked a lot of these kinds of questions, we didn’t address this one specifically. It’s left for the viewer to mull over or not. The writing can happen like that, where you finish a script without certain types of characters, and it’s best usually to leave it the way it is, it doesn’t tend to be accidental.

Jason Schwartzman’s own dog, Arrow, delivers one of the finest canine performances in recent memory. It’s kind of a cute thing to observe about the movie but Arrow really does do what old movie stars used to, which is project, with seeming effortlessness, a really clear personality (in his case, a sort of slobbery, steadfast placidity). Was Arrow a natural, or was this a performance you had to coax out of him, or create in the editing room?

I agree, yes, that Arrow really does do what old movie stars used to, which is project, with seeming effortlessness, a really clear personality—when we cast him, we had some sense that Arrow could do what Jason admires in actors like Buster Keaton. That performance was all there, and took no cutting room shenanigans of the kind you’re suggesting. With Arrow the battle was putting the right amount in, because we had cuts with too much of Arrow and he sort of took over the movie in a way that irritated some viewers, they rightly felt we were playing the “cute” card in an irksome manner.

And I ask partly because I‘m curious about your attitude towards working for performers in general, human as well as nonhuman. Are you writing roles with performers in mind? What are you looking for in casting—a specific vibe?

I have a friend who directs films and he says you have to “pop” on screen or you don’t belong in his movies, and I would agree with that. Performers I go back to, like Kevin Corrigan, have a thing, you know? They have a thing and you want to make sure and put it across. Stephen Root has it to excess, and I will beg him to be in the next one. I rarely audition someone, in the traditional sense, or have casting cattle calls, it seems inefficient.