A Conversation With Zach Clark (WHITE REINDEER)

(White Reindeer world premiered at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival and was picked up for distribution by IFC Films. It opened theatrically in NYC at the IFC Center on Friday, December 6, 2013, and has a busy weekend on the 13th, screening at the Cleveland Institute of Art, the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, the Austin Film Society, and at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus. Perhaps more helpfully, IT IS NOW AVAILABLE ON VOD!!! Visit the film’s official website to learn more.)

I wrote this about Zach Clark’s White Reindeer when I caught it at SXSW earlier this year:

One Christmas Eve, Douglas Sirk and John Waters met up in a Delmarva titty bar, where they got tanked and wrote a screenplay. Okay, that didn’t really happen, but watching Zach Clark’s White Reindeer, you might think otherwise. Suzanne (the consistently excellent Anna Margaret Hollyman) is a Northern Virginia wife whose life spirals out of control when her husband leaves her behind and a coworker of reveals a shocking secret. This turn of events sends Suzanne into an unexpected candy-cane spiral of debauchery. Clark’s contribution to the Christmas movie canon is equal parts shocking, hilarious, and genuinely sad.

Earlier this week, I got on the phone with Clark [full disclosure/reminder: Clark is a sometimes contributor to Hammer to Nail] in order to speak on more nuts-and-bolts terms about he made this movie happen, and why Anna Margaret Hollyman is such a special actress.

Hammer to Nail: Your publicity presence in the week leading to the film’s release was a seriously A+ affair. [NOTE: Seriously, check these three articles out if you haven’t already, and that is an order: "10 Rules For Making Your Own Movie," "Five Favorite Christmas Films With White Reindeer Director Zach Clark," and the incredible "A Christmas Ode By Zach Clark."] Was that all by your design or your publicist, or did certain sites reach out to you with these great ideas?

Zach Clark: It is pretty much all the publicist [Brigade Marketing]. There was an initial meeting early on where they were like, “Here are some ideas,” and I said, “Any opportunity you have to let me talk about other Christmas movies is probably good.” Because I know a lot about them. I like them and can speak enthusiastically about them. It’s something easy to tie into [the film]. Press outlets are always looking for that sort of thing. “A Holiday Movie Roundup!”

H2N: People love lists! People love lists!

ZC: Yeah they do.

H2N: Okay, so that leads into really the only question I have prepared to ask you: What haven’t you been able to talk about that you’d like to when it comes to White Reindeer? What have people not asked you or have you simply gotten the same questions over and over again? I want you to divulge some new and exciting information in this conversation, Mister Zach Clark.

ZC: Sure! I mean, you always get asked the same questions. You know, like every single person asks, “Where did the idea come from?” I’ve gotten to talk a fair amount about style stuff, but I guess one thing that hasn’t really quite been talked about is how we actually made the movie. Like, how we were living during it, how many people were working on it, who was doing what. That sort of thing.

H2N: Well that’s perfect for our site, obviously, so let’s run with that! When it comes to diving into a project like this, it isn’t necessarily about having all of the money in place before you set a start date. There’s that more important energy source that convinces you the time has come to push forward. Was this a long journey? Did you have false starts or did you simply say, “We’re shooting a movie this Christmas,” and dive in?

ZC: The false start was that we spent a year trying to get basically a quarter million dollars for this movie, trying to get the script to agents and get people attached. I started talking to people about giving us a little bit more money. We were talking to people who were willing to chip in like, 10 or 15 or 20 thousand, so we could slowly amalgamate that larger amount of money, but there was one of those “debt ceiling crisis” things happening at that exact time? [H2N laughs] So, everybody would say, “This sounds good, you guys have made a few other movies, but we don’t know what we’ll be able to do with our money in a month or so.” So the Kickstarter was a direct reaction to us waiting for a long time to do it. I think at some point, I don’t know if I ever thought that I would make it in winter of 2010. I don’t think I ever thought that I would. But we shot in December 2011. It was August, and I was like, “Well, shit, we either go now—we either do this Kickstarter and raise the money now—or we wait for another year.” ‘Cause I know how to make a movie for no money immediately. Like, when you’re making a movie for no money you can start right away. [both laugh] It simplifies so many questions. You’re not wondering, “How do I pay a movie star to be in this movie?” You’re like, “Oh, I don’t have any money to pay that person.” So now I know I need to find other kinds of people. It’s not like, “How are we going to pay to rent that equipment?” It’s, “Oh, we don’t have any money to pay for that, so we have to find another way around it.” You can tell people you have no money right away. [ZC laughs]

H2N: By getting that out in the open right away, you also figure out who really wants to be there and who doesn’t.

ZC: Totally. So in a lot of ways it actually makes starting and moving forward really easy, ‘cause you know exactly what you’re working with. You’re not talking about, “If we get this person on board we can put the money together by this set time.” It’s, “We’ll just use the resources we have available and put together whatever we can.”

H2N: At that point, how do you personally feel like you’re not selling your idea short and are simply making something to make something? Particularly with regard to White Reindeer, was there a bar you set for yourself to make sure you would be doing justice to your vision?

ZC: The scope of [White Reindeer] I guess was a bit larger than the things we’d done before. The characters just had more money. I think that was the biggest thing going into this. Like, the main character is supposed to be married to someone who’s on TV, so I can’t shoot in just anybody’s apartment. I can’t have friends let me use their spaces for a few days at a time. I have to find an actual adult house where someone owns nice things already, so we could be in that space and have it feel appropriate.

I intentionally wrote it for Alexandria, Virginia, ‘cause my family is there and I grew up there and there’s just a lot of immediate favors I can call in. So there’s a bunch of stuff—Suzanne’s house in the movie is a friend of my sister’s mother’s house. My sister was just asking friends who were still living there if they had any leads on nice houses we could shoot in. That ended up working out for us, because all the out of town crew ended up staying in that house while we were shooting there, which was really helpful. Because we weren’t really paying a rental fee. We paid so that they were comfortable, that their dog had a place to go, and a cleaning crew could come in, but we weren’t paying them a daily rental fee or anything. And then Fantasia’s apartment is a friend’s apartment.

Weirdly, a lot of the other locations just sort of said yes immediately, or said yes for a really small location fee. We just had really weird luck. My opening was always, “Hey, I’m from the Washington DC area and I’m making a small little independent film locally, and I was wondering if you’d be open to us coming in for a day or so, it would just be this amount of people.” So a lot of that stuff lined up pretty easily. But again, everyone from out of town was living together, either in the location itself, or for the second week we shot in December, we were sort of all over the place, we had to be out of that house so we rented a house for everyone to stay in.

H2N: And how long was the shoot?

ZC: Principal photography was 19 days altogether, which was 12 days in December, and then I think four in February, and three in March/April.

H2N: Did you keep assembling and bringing back the same crew or were you scrambling to recruit people for each shoot?

ZC: We had the same core group. The 1st AC [Alex Sablow] and the 2nd AC [Kevin Marshall] were consistent for the entire thing. We were constantly rotating sound mixers. Constantly rotating. Pretty much after the first week we started losing people. But all of those later shoots, everything post-December was a super stripped down crew anyway. I’d say the first week of December there were maybe 13 of us on the crew. And then starting that next week it dropped down to like five to ten, depending on the day and what we needed to do.

H2N: Okay, getting back to something you said earlier. You said you didn’t have the money to cast a movie star but I think you did cast a movie star…

ZC: For sure!

H2N: I actually wrote Anna Margaret earlier this year to tell her this, but whenever I see yet another of these “Hot Breakout Upstart New Faces!” lists and she’s not on it, I am starting to take it personally. I hope this movie might help to fix this problem. In White Reindeer in particular, her gift is used to its greatest effect. I feel like she never makes any false moves. It’s clearly acting, but it just feels so effortless and natural. Beyond her being simply an exceptional actress, did you cast her because this material gets so off-the-wall and unruly that you felt you had to have a grounding presence like her?

ZC: She is really grounded. One point I think in the first week of production, Melodie Sisk [producer] pulled me aside and was like, “This is crazy. She doesn’t have bad takes.” I was like, “I know, it’s weird!” [H2N laughs] Sometimes it’s maybe not what I was necessarily thinking, or what I think worked the best, but she’s never not truthful. She’s always present. She’s always there. To me, what was the most important thing, aside from her natural ability and how smart she is, is that Anna Margaret is really, really funny. She’s a very naturally funny person. And you sort of need someone who gets that for this kind of movie, where you’re walking a very fine line between what’s sad and what’s funny. To have someone who’s just naturally very funny, who understands the sort of underlying humor in the material, is so valuable, so valuable. And I don’t know that you can direct that out of someone.

H2N: Someone who doesn’t get it thinks they have to be funny since it’s a “funny movie,” whereas you need someone who understands that trying to be funny will send the whole concept over the cliff.

ZC: Absolutely.

H2N: How did the opening weekend go at the IFC Center? Was it fun?

ZC: Yeah, it was super fun! I mean, we sold out the 9:30 show [on Friday night], which was all people I knew, so that helped a fair amount. [both laugh] The last week was overwhelming for me in a lot of ways, because the press has been really positive, but to a degree where reading another good review was a little overwhelming emotionally. ‘Cause you never know when things are gonna do well or not do well. That’s the sort of other thing you buy when you have 40 million dollars. You buy a bit of a guarantee because ‘that’ person is in it and it has ‘this amount’ of production design. You buy that it will get out there in the world in a way. When you’re spending 40 million dollars, some of that money is already set aside for you to make sure that it gets seen and reaches a fair amount of screens. But when you’re spending no money on something, it could go any way at any time. So to have a thing that’s very small be noticed or written about by a fair amount of people is a rare privilege. On Vacation!, I’ve gone through the opposite, which is no one really writing about it, and the people who do write about it have no idea what to make of it, or they just hate it. I feel like I appreciate it more so now because I know what the other side of the coin is like.

— Michael Tully

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