“Does the scene have a beverage that goes with it?”: An Interview with the Directors of L for Leisure

05/15/2015 12:00 PM |

L4L_Still - L-R Andie (Libby Gery), Tristan (Kyle Wiliams), Blake (Bro Estes) and Otto (Engelbert Holder) in Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s L FOR LEISURE. Courtesy of Special Affects Films

Once a year at the Passover Seder, tradition demands we recline while we eat and consume four glasses of wine. For the characters in L for Leisure, this is merely the daily routine. Taking languor and extraneity as its very subject, the first feature from filmmaking duo Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn (Blondes in the Jungle) unfolds over the course of the 1992-1993 academic year. But there’s very little class time involved; instead, the directors drop in and out on a group of loosely interwoven graduate students in varying states of repose. Whether chilling beachside in California, sprawled out in backyards across the East Coast, or casually leaning against a pack of ponies in the fjords of Iceland, life, it seems, is one giant chaise lounge—and there’s always a beverage within arm’s reach.

Shot on 16mm, the film’s languid tone and bright, sun-kissed aesthetic owes as much to the work of Eric Rohmer and Whit Stillman as it does to early MTV music videos, but the characters’ mannered way of speaking most closely recalls DIY king Hal Hartley circa The Unbelievable Truth. Deadpan and heady, these intellectually inclined sybarites discuss things like the “erotic hold” of post-apocalyptic fantasy and ruminate over the possibilities of an alternate universe “cellularly and molecularly.” They marvel at semantics (“Is that the word we’re using? That is so interesting”) and constantly report on their state of “mellow.”

The film is chock-full of visual landmarks and cultural references specific to the early-90s: Snapple, Rollerblades, Marky Mark’s “important” ads for boxer-briefs, Wayne’s World’s “Sha-wing.” There’s an endless supply of high-waisted Levi’s and, best of all, a spontaneous A Capella rendition of Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby.” But the directors are not terribly bothered by subtle anachronisms: Mariah’s hit came out in 1995, do we care? With the aid of John Atkinson’s original synth score, L for Leisure strives toward creating impression rather than an imitation of the decade.

For all its atmospheric laziness, this is not a film about (or for) slackers, but rather thinkers; embedded directly into the easy-breezy aesthetic is quite a rigorous exploration of time and space. There’s a telling moment towards the end of movie where one of the characters discusses John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s concept of “psychedelic sports.” In the 20th century, he explains, activities whose pleasures lie simply in the sensation of moving through space—skiing, skateboarding—have replaced traditional games burdened by rules and keeping score, like tennis. The same might be said of Kalman and Horn’s style of filmmaking, which eschews all restrictive structural expectations in favor of free-flowing mood and temporality.

We reached the directors by phone in advance of the film’s theatrical run, which begins this Friday at Made in NY Media Center by IFP, to mull over their artistic conception of leisure and why the 90s resonate so strongly today. Though Lev Kalman speaks for the pair in interviews as a rule, Whitney Horn will introduce the film on multiple nights during “L for Leisure week“; other screenings will feature Q&As and “L for Leisure Lectures” on topics such as nostalgia and laziness, as well as special-guest videos and music performances.

The vignette structure of the film came partially out of necessity: you knew in advance you’d be shooting in bits and pieces over the course of a few years. What was the writing process like given the nature of the project and how did it come together logistically with the two of you living in different cities?

For us it’s really hard to separate out the logistical concerns from the aesthetics. We sort of like the limitations we work within because it helps us focus on what we’re good at, which tend to be these DIY or contingent productions. The idea we had for L for Leisure, because it was going to take so long, was that we should keep it interesting for ourselves. Instead of kind of having a finished screenplay we wanted to have an outline so that when we came up with a new idea we didn’t have to be like, “Well, we’ll have to wait for the next movie in a few years.” We could incorporate it into this one.

Some of the writing happened way in advance when we started the project and other scenes were written as they were being planned or shot. Sometimes the first opportunity we had to work with the actors was when we’d show up on location and start rehearsing. So we’d be like, “We kind of thought of this, but let’s hear how you say it,” and then we’d do pretty major re-writes right there.

Some scenes developed completely out of nowhere, for example, the Iceland scene. We had this whole other scene planned in Silicon Valley—a roaming pool party, which was going to be one of the bigger scenes in the movie. And then we got the rug pulled out from under us, because the lead actor, Kyle Williams, was like, “Oh sorry guys, I gotta go to this residency in Iceland” and we were like, “Well, can we just come?”

L4L_Tristan in Pool - Tristan (Kyle Williams) in a swimming pool in Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s L FOR LEISURE. Courtesy of Special Affects Films

That was one of the most visually striking sequences in the film—and so appropriate that he’s reading Al Gore’s book in the fjords. The film is much more about mood than character, but I’m curious if you had elaborate backstories for the students, specifically how their location or upbringing shaped whichever pretentious thesis project they happen to be working on.

As much as sometimes to the viewer the scenario or the characters might seem absurd or surprising, to us, it always comes from this place of developing this whole little world of backstories. We know what the majors are of all the different graduate students and how they all interrelate. That helps us motivate the story and keep it honest to ourselves, so it doesn’t feel like joke after joke, but rather grounded in this reality.

That scene [in Iceland] in particular, if I remember it correctly, was of Tristan (Kyle Williams’s character) reading the Al Gore book, Earth in the Balance. That’s part of his thinking about the apocalypse, which is a course that he’s TA-ing, it’s part of his studies. So that’s what helps motivate us through that Iceland sequence and takes us to those sublime, end-of-the-world locations.

Did either of you go to grad school? The academic jargon is so spot-on.

No, neither of us went to grad school. When we started to write the movie we were 26 or 27 and it seemed like everyone who still had any time to hang out with us was in grad school. The people who became professionals got married and we never saw them.

What we really like about how grad students work in the movie is that they’re kind of an extension of high schoolers. We really like teen comedies and what’s great about high school kids is that they’re totally implicated in society but also have a little bit of distance from it. They’re not completely bound to the same rules and can be at angles with society and how they’re supposed to behave. Grad students seem like a grown-up version of that: they’re sort of looking in on things. What’s so great about these [characters] is that they’re also super self-aware; they never say a sentence without chewing over it as soon as they say it or right as they’re saying it. Their dialogue is overly specific and overly determined.

The film itself is in many ways very academic: the characters embody theoretical ideas of excess, namely having endless amounts of time. No episode is ever brought to a conclusion—instead there’s this suggestion of infinite continuation.

Yeah, I like that you noticed how no scene completes itself. That was really important for us. The fear was that in making this kind of anthology-style movie is that feeling you get watching something [in that style] like, “Oh that was a killer scene,” and then “Ok, now here’s the one we have to trudge through,” and then, “How many of these are there? Are we almost done?” We really wanted to avoid that feeling of the clock ticking away. None of these scenes can stand on their own—they always feel like they need every other scene to inform them and we felt that propelled the movie forward. Even though it’s a leisurely and meandering movie, it doesn’t ever come to a rest either.

The other thing you pointed out was the question of how do we include the excessive parts—the excessive amounts of time or repetition or excessive attention to the way people are looking around, or having nap time. How do we make that feel not just like, “Ugh, can’t you just trim that down?” The project was always trying to find a way to make it happen at that rhythm and pace of leisure instead of having it be extraneous. What’s in the movie is not that different from what’s in other films, but we emphasize what’s usually a flourish.

The soundscape was hugely important to the tone and atmosphere: birds chirping, a tennis ball ping-ponging against the rackets, porch doors swinging, skateboards on concrete. I know the dialogue was recorded separately, but what was the technical process for building the soundscape?

First, I’m super flattered—Whitney is the cinematographer and usually people are talking about the picture, which is gorgeous, but no one has ever asked me about the sound: I did the sound [laughs]. I’m still glowing and can’t even formulate an answer. We have a really loud camera, so 90% of the time, the sound has to be recorded separately. And what that’s trained us to do is to be really conscious of building the soundscape for every scene, and not just take it for granted, like, “Oh, I guess there just weren’t that many birds today.” The same way we’re planning shots we’re always planning the specific kinds of sounds that would be happening in the scene. When we’re finishing shooting the narrative of a scene, Whitney usually goes and picks up all of the landscape and atmospheric shots, and at that same time I’m going around finding the specific sounds.

Whitney actually recorded a good amount of those birds because she’s got a nice yard.

L4L_Blake on Boat - Blake (Bro Estes) on a boat in Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s L FOR LEISURE. Courtesy of Special Affects Films

The visuals are also absolutely stunning in the film. You shot on 16mm and have spoken in past interviews about not being interested in digital or video. Ironically, this period, the 1990s, is when that whole video crossover is happening. Can you talk a bit about why film as a medium is so important to your overall aesthetic?

[Laughs] That’s an interesting point, I never really thought about it. I guess if we really wanted to pick a medium that was speaking to the moment, we should have shot it on video and not 16mm. People writing about the film always say it was shot on 16mm to capture that retro look, but you’re right, it would be a little bit off.

I think that we just love the way that it looks, I just don’t feel very musical with the digital medium. I teach it, so I understand how it works on a technical level, and I can explain to people how it works, but I can’t really visualize shots that way and I think Whitney’s the same. With 16 we know what works, or what won’t work, or what would be cool to try. I think it helps inform our process. It’s like what I was just saying about sound. We just got a new camera that’s much quieter, so we won’t be forced to record sound separately, but because we’ve been doing it for twelve years, we’re now always going to think about sound as something separate that you have to prepare for.

Similarly with film being so expensive and having time restrictions on how long your shots can be, it’s disciplined us in a cool way. We only do one or two takes, we don’t do a whole lot of angles. As much as the movie is casual in its aesthetics and is straightforward and un-fancy, it feels more like a performance. There’s never that feeling of, “Oh, are we just rolling? I guess that worked, cool.” There’s always the feeling of, “Ok, let’s get this shot.” I like the way it structures the day.

In terms of your specific visual references—the Al Gore book, the Snapple, the Rollerblades. Did you have a list of things you wanted to be sure to get in or did they come naturally as you were writing the scenes?

It was a little bit of a mix. I think there’s definitely a specific vibe that we wanted to pick up on—more specific than just the early 90s—we wanted a small subset that includes the San Pellegrino and the Snapple and the Rollerblades. We definitely had some specific props in mind and then things like the Al Gore book came up as we were writing—that was the perfect thing to hook into the Iceland scene and make it all make sense.

As much as we were thinking of the scenes in terms of, “What is this character doing?” we were also thinking, “Does the scene have a beverage that goes with it?” So the “Chillcanos” go with waterskiing, the mineral water goes with the drive-through scene, and the Evian goes with the France scene… We were always thinking about those elements that would help make that scene realize itself.

L4L_Kennedy_JockBoy - (R) Kennedy (Melissa Barrera) in Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s L FOR LEISURE. Courtesy of Special Affects Films

The film’s original score is 90s in the way that music now is 90s-inspired rather than sounding necessarily “accurate” to the period. What drove the decision to have a score over soundtrack and what was the collaboration process with your composer?

The composer is John Atkinson, he’s worked with us on a number of projects. He really gets what we’re doing and is able to communicate it. I think what he does with the soundtrack mirrors our project, which is that any attempt to talk about the 90s always has to legibly be somebody now talking about the 90s rather than just a simulation of that moment using movie tricks. In the same way that we aren’t particularly meticulous about recreating period details, he’s also not trying to fool anyone into thinking that this might be a great song from the 90s no one knew about. It definitely sounds like it’s made on a laptop and it’s using all these things that seem like they wouldn’t be right for back then. But it’s him talking about how he feels about that time and that’s the vibe of the film.

That’s why it was important for us not to use licensed music. And yeah, we didn’t really have the money to use licensed music, but it also would been an entirely different project if we had. I’m not sure how we would’ve made that feel like it was coming from our voice. It would have been more a window into the 90s or a recreation instead of what we’re doing which is interpretation and reenactment.

Even though the film is firmly planted in the period it also feels current—specifically speaking to the current obsession with the 90s. What, for you, is the particular draw of that moment in time?

I think that part of it is just that now people who are in positions to make decisions about what kind of media we enjoy are in their 30s and are nostalgic for when they were teenagers. But I think for our film it helped us center in on finding these things that are still very much in conversation now—whether it’s global warming or racism. In lot of ways that thinking was formed by that moment but also now it seems almost jarringly off the way these conversations used to go. That’s what’s cool about working with the recent past—trying to find that awkward distance. Have certain things just become gauche or unfashionable to talk about in a certain way? Or have we actually changed the way we think about them?

The film is both loving and critical of the period and the characters—does the balance of aesthetic immersion and comedic distance come easily to you?

I mean, that’s all we do. So we better be ok at doing that because that’s our whole thing. Neither of us think we’re great comedy writers in other contexts, it’s a certain key of comedy that we know—jokes that always have this distance. That’s the voice that we know how to write in. Sometimes you’re like, “Man I can’t think of anything” and other times you’ll think of a joke and be like, “That would be good on 30 Rock but that’s not what we’re doing.” That’s luckily what we’re good at: telling the difference between what does and doesn’t fit into our aesthetic. What would be just ok in any movie, and what is something that would only happen in our film.