A Conversation With Drew Tobia (SEE YOU NEXT TUESDAY)
I met Drew Tobia at the 2009 Boston Underground Film Festival, after a screening of my movie Modern Love is Automatic (read Lena Dunham’s HTN review right here). He handed me a DVD with a bunch of shorts he had made (including my personal favorite, Leperfuck), and our mutual fandom/friendship began. A few years later, I saw a rough cut of his debut feature, See You Next Tuesday, projected onto a dirty wall in a Bed-Stuy loft. I loved it then, and find more and more to love with each subsequent viewing (I’ve seen it at least four times now.) Last weekend, on the heels of his movie’s long overdue theatrical run—it opens at Cinema Village in NYC on Friday, August 22, 2014 via Devolver Digital—Drew stopped by my apartment to talk about inspirations, frustrations, and loving the shit out of your characters.
Hammer To Nail: The movies that made you want to make movies are not the movies that most independent filmmakers are inspired by.
Drew Tobia: What were other people inspired by? Because I am just confused, I always think that my tastes are really standard. I feel like you and I are the normal ones.
H2N: When you were in high school and watching movies, what were you getting excited about?
DT: I was getting high and watching Pink Flamingos every day. Like, every day. I would get high and watch Pink Flamingos sometimes with the commentary, sometimes without. I told that to Mink Stole when were at [Boston Underground] that year, and she just said, “I’m really sorry.”
I watched Mommy Dearest a lot. Misery was another favorite of mine. When I was a freshman in college I got all those Paul Morrissey movies and I watched those. Especially Trash.
H2N: See You Next Tuesday lives in that tradition, but it brings this level of sincerity to things that most of those movies don’t have.
DT: I think the Paul Morrissey movies have a little bit of sincerity, maybe not as much. But you feel for those characters. I feel really bad by the end of Trash, because I really like them a lot even thought they’re really fucked up. I don’t think that it ever makes me cry, but I think that it gives a shit about its characters.
H2N: I’d say that John Waters gives a shit about his characters, too, but in a different way.
DT: He rarely makes it real. He always keeps it in a cartoon world but he still always really respects and loves his characters.
H2N: You do a really good job at creating a world for this movie, too. Maybe this was intentional or not, you can correct me if it wasn’t, but it feels almost like an answer to how most modern indie movies depict Brooklyn. It’s an underbelly view of Brooklyn, but it’s not urban kids dealing drugs. It’s still neurotic white people, but its neurotic white people with deep, awful problems that are very real. Did you see the movie as different from, or in opposition to other indie movies?
DT: It’s hard to say because it was so long ago, but I do know that I was angry at a lot of the things I was seeing when I wrote it. I didn’t think they went far enough and the stakes never really seemed all that high and I didn’t really care about, like, people talking. I like when people do stuff. I think my characters do a lot of stuff.
H2N: They do a fair amount!
DT: They’re always causing chaos wherever they go and you can’t ignore that. They are the ones that are like, “I’m going to take control of a situation. If I don’t like it, I’m just going to make it crazy.”
H2N: That’s what you did with this movie, you saw a situation you didn’t like and you made it crazy.
DT: It’s not that I didn’t like it. To say that would be unfair because I wasn’t really all that familiar with what was happening. I just had a vague idea of what the Brooklyn film scene was like, and I just wanted to make something a little crazier and a little more alive and less people talking about, “Why are we here?” They’re not asking those questions, that’s part of the reason why they’re so crazy.
H2N: There’s a lot of attention to detail. Supporting characters are extremely well cast. The costume design is meticulous. And the production design, too—the wallpaper in her apartment, for example.
DT: Even in the scriptwriting phase there were a lot of character notes and costume notes. I made a whole look book and a lot of it came from the Russian photographer that my friend sent me. All the designs of their apartments look like they’re from another era. It all looks really old and they all have very floral wallpaper that looks like it was put on not that great. I really liked it and I knew it wasn’t what I see a lot of the time in Brooklyn, but I did it anyway because I thought it fit with the character and what I was trying to do.
In choosing all the other locations, we didn’t want to make things look too trashy. We wanted the apartment that Jordan and Sylvie live in to be very sterile and white, like one of those new condos that’s just gone up. There’s actually one shot that we never got because we didn’t have a wide enough lens, of that big brand new condo building in between these two really old ones. That was what informed a lot of the decisions, underneath everything there’s this level of bubbling anger and disgusting trashy things, and then above that everything just seems like it could be okay.
Costumes were really, really important. I got my high school friend Marie MacDougall to do them. And my direction to her was, “If you wanted to dress up as any character in the movie for Halloween, it shouldn’t be hard to do.” I wanted easily identifiable styles for the characters. They each have their “hero” article of clothing—like Mona’s coat, and Jordan’s “YOUR TYPE” t-shirt.
We did auditions for the smaller parts. The big parts were recommended to us, or I knew [the actors] and was writing for them already. Once we started looking for the minor roles, it was funny and we were doing [auditions] at this bar in Bushwick. People would show up who just went to the bar, and were like, “Hey, can we [audition?]” That’s how we found the crackhead doorman. He was like, “I used to be a crackhead, can I do this?” And I said, “Okay!” And we let him do it.
Beverly Bonner, who’s in all the Basket Case movies and who I’m a really big fan of, I wrote that small part for her. And I got on the phone with her, expecting her to not be around anymore, or to not be interested in doing my movie. For me, Beverly Bonner is a big star. And I got her number, I think it’s actually on the Basket Case DVD. If you go in the special features, there’s an option to call her. So, I called up the number that was on the Basket Case DVD and said, “I don’t know if this is the right number, but I really want Beverly Bonner in my movie.” And she called me back and we had a really long conversation, which was really exciting for me.
H2N: If Basket Case wasn’t a horror movie, it would be your movie.
DT: That’s why I love Basket Case and those other movies so much. I feel like [Beverly Bonner’s] character has so much care put into it. I really love her character. She’s not condescended to. I don’t feel like she’s playing the sassy black woman. She is a full-formed character and she’s fun to be around. I guess my characters aren’t fun to be around, but I like my characters. I don’t feel like they’re really shitty people. They may do shitty things, but…
H2N: They’re fun to spend time with. I wouldn’t want to be in a room with them, necessarily, but I like watching what they do to other people.
DT: Just don’t fuck with them. They don’t fuck with anyone that doesn’t fuck with them. Except for Jordan, I guess.
H2N: Today we have the privilege of making movies that look good for very little money. And therefore, we can make things that don’t have to have any commercial potential whatsoever. Going in, did you say, “Fuck it, I’m just going to make whatever fucking thing I want?”
DT: In my mind, this was me holding back and doing something commercial. I knew I was doing something really good, and wasn’t like, people eating vomit or fucking people with body parts falling off. I wasn’t doing anything gross or purposefully shitty. I was making a movie about characters going through actual trauma and dealing with that, but doing it my way. I felt like I was making a Sundance movie but the way I would do it. My older stuff is purposely, like, blechhh.
H2N: When you’re 23, you need to get that shit out of your system.
DT: I did. And this was my effort to like, mature. [DT laughs] I was really naive about the way stuff worked going into it because I had never done it before. I had a couple of shorts that played underground film festivals, and that was it. And then I started learning about other friends’ movies, and going through the whole process. There’s a whole business side of things and I just thought, “I’ll just make something good and then all of that shit will come to me.” We used all this music and I thought, “A distributor will just come along and pay for it all.”
H2N: Our generation was raised on the narrative of independent film in the ‘90s. When we were getting into movies, that’s what was happening. Kevin Smith can fuck off and make Clerks for $16,000 and it’s just dick jokes for 90 minutes and it gets bought for millions of dollars and is in video stores across America. I certainly felt that way when I was making Modern Love is Automatic. “Oh, it’ll be good. It’s different than other things. So there’s got to be a market for it!“
DT: Right, that’s the thing! I know it’s good and I know it’s different. Harvey Weinstein is going to come knocking at my fucking door and that’ll be that. [DT laughs] It didn’t happen that way.
H2N: I don’t know that it ever will again on the same scale.
DT: I don’t think it can.
H2N: It happens once every two years, it seems like. Something that gets bought for a lot of money.
DT: But even movies that have celebrities that are good still don’t get seen at the level they would have. Like that movie Rampart. Why wasn’t that movie huge? It had a lot of bankable celebrities and it was really good and no one gave a shit.
H2N: See You Next Tuesday premiered at the Chicago Underground Film Festival.
DT: When I was making short films, like Leperfuck and Stupid Junkie Faggot, I really wanted to play Chicago because they had really good, cool, interesting programming. For me, they were a big get. I don’t think we made the Sundance deadline and we were talking to people and it was like, “It’ll never happen.” So we didn’t rush to make the deadline. SXSW was just a flat rejection and we never spoke to anybody there.
We were up for Tribeca and there were people there saying they really liked it a lot and they thought it was going to get in, and then Chicago came to us and said, “Hey, we’re a couple months earlier and we’re going to make you the closing night film. We really love it, and want to premiere it, and foster it into the world.” And we went back to Tribeca and said, “Alright, we’ve got another offer from another festival and we would like to premiere with you guys but these people are putting together their program.” And Tribeca was like, “We don’t really know yet. We’re not sure if we’re going to reject you or accept you.” Am I going to take a rejection from Tribeca and not play this festival that I really wanted to play?
The whole thing seemed really stupid. Here are these people that really love the movie and saying such nice things and courting me because they really wanted the premiere, and these other people that were like, “We’re really not so sure.”
H2N: Every time I watch the movie I get mad that it didn’t get into a major festival. It’s heads and tails better than things that have played those festivals. And that happens every year—there are good movies that don’t get in. But this movie especially, the people who love it love the shit out of it, and the people who don’t like it really don’t like it.
DT: I’ve heard stories of festival programmers sitting at opposite ends of the table screaming at each other. Someone told me they were in a meeting where half the room was screaming at the other half of the room, like, “You need to play this movie,” and the other half was like, “We are not fucking playing this movie!”
H2N: You’ve played some pretty major foreign festivals, like JeonJu.
DT: We just submitted blindly to a lot of places and then it stuck. JeonJu was free, and it looked like they had some money, so we said, “Why not?” And then we got accepted and we had no strategy for international, no strategy for our domestic festival run. JeonJu was our international premiere, but they had so much money. They gave us so much free food and hotels, I got a whole vacation in Korea. And they retitled the movie to Crazy Bitches and we had four sold out screenings.
I was in France at a festival back in November, and some Korean kid walks up to me and recognized me. Korean teenagers would bring their film classes (to JeonJu) to watch the movie and they loved it and thought it was great. They were watching this rude American movie that says “fuck” a lot and they would ask me for autographs and I got stopped it in the street. It was so much fun.
In Europe, we played Hamburg, which was really nice for us. BFI London Film Festival, that was one we weren’t expecting. That was huge. I was on a fucking red carpet with Tom Hanks—I was like, next to Tom Hanks on a red carpet. The festival is known for these big movies but there’s this second festival happening in the smaller theaters where they’re playing shit like mine. But not even. I was one of the lowest budgeted movies at that festival. One of the programmers just loved it so much, and did an interview where she was like, “This is the best movie at the festival. This is the one that we’re the proudest of finding.”
H2N: That was my experience at Edinburgh with Modern Love is Automatic. When you have a first feature there’s a real sense of discovery for programmers. I think your sense of empathy towards your characters really translates to people who love it, and they feel protective of it.
DT: That’s how I feel about bad reviews, they’re like, “He just wants to push envelopes and he doesn’t love his characters.” Fuck you, you don’t know who the fuck I am. You probably didn’t even watch the whole movie.
H2N: I got the exact same thing with White Reindeer, “This is just condescending and ironic the entire time.”
DT: “Fuck you!” What are they talking about? I saw your movie and it’s not that at all! I don’t get that. I’m telling you people don’t watch the whole thing.
H2N: Your movie is difficult and challenging. Like, it’s not a Tarkovsky movie, there aren’t ten minute takes of nothing happening. But you have scenes that audiences have to overcome. You have things in there that are theoretical road blocks. In other movies, if characters say certain racial slurs to other characters, they’re terrible people.
DT: They have to smoke cigarettes and kill babies. That’s Crash. I think that’s another problem people have with it. The movie isn’t Crash. We touch on those things and they don’t get resolved. They want it to get wrapped up so they can feel better about it.
H2N: You’re taught by popular cinema that wrongs need to be righted within the context of a film and if they’re not then the film is condoning them. Which is bullshit. Characters should be allowed to do horrible things, and the audience should be allowed to come to their own conclusions.
DT: Thank you! And the people that like it, do. And the people that don’t like it, don’t.
— Zach Clark