(Here’s part 2 of Nick Toti’s interview with Zachary Oberzan about his life, his work, and the solemn meditative qualities of popular culture. Much like his movies, Oberzan’s answers range from the uncomfortably candid to the bizarre. Topics covered include: working in a cancer ward, asking favors of Abbas Kiarostami, fantasies about Miley Cyrus, and photos of diseased testicles.)
Nick Toti: Kiarostami is a major figure in The Great Pretender. How does his recent death affect the future of that project?
Zachary Oberzan: I’ll tell you a good story. In pre-production, I offered Jean-Claude Van Damme a cameo. He had to turn it down, but he was very polite about it. Then I wrote to Mr. Kiarostami, and told him I was making this project inspired by Close Up, and I offered him a cameo, too. (I asked them both to play me.) He also politely wrote back and wished me well but turned down the role. He said, “I’m not very comfortable in front of the camera.” I can understand that. After the project was complete I wrote to him again and sent him the trailer. But I didn’t hear back. I thought he didn’t like it. In hindsight I believe he was already being treated for cancer at that point. He died of gastrointestinal cancer. I wish he had gone to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in NYC, where I worked for 10 years, instead of France. My lab specialized in GI cancer. It’s the best cancer care in the world. Anyway, needless to say I was deeply saddened by his death, and in a partially selfish way, I’m saddened that I’ll never have the chance to show him this piece that I hope honors him.
NT: What is the current status of The Great Pretender? The version that I saw was a “demo version.” It was unclear if this meant that it was a rough cut or some kind of promotional version used for booking live shows.
ZO: Yes, what you saw was an abbreviated version for booking live shows. The live show will continue to tour in Europe and possibly Asia. As with TMLIR, you’re not going to see it in the USA. Well, I highly doubt it. As with my previous pieces, I will eventually shoot the live aspects, then combine them with the existing to film, to make one stand-alone film, which I will then pawn for $5 on my website.
NT: It seems safe to assume that you don’t get the rights cleared to most (if any) of the music or movies referenced in your work. Do you feel any sense of responsibility to the people who created those works or the entities that own them? Is there a specific philosophy behind these appropriations or do you just take what you need without question?
ZO: Well, you know, my first big hero was Paul Simon, the Patron Saint of Appropriation. The funny thing is, when all of my work was being completely ignored, I was ignorant enough to think I had to get permission. Let it be known: YOU ONLY NEED TO GET PERMISSION IF IT MAKES A LOT OF MONEY. I currently make a living, and can now employ other people to help me out, but I’m not raking in the millions. If I did, I’m sure whoever owns the cinematic rights to the novel First Blood would come knocking. But on that note, David Morrell, the author of First Blood, has been extremely generous and supportive of Flooding. But he sold the cinematic rights to the novel in 1972, so he couldn’t be of help if anyone does come knocking in regards to that. The fact is, if you’re not raking in the millions, most people are simply flattered that you want to include them, that you are inspired by them. Jean-Claude has also been very supportive in that manner.
NT: You sell digital rentals of all your movies through your website as their primary form of distribution. How successful has this been?
ZO: I’m not going to retire on my digital movie sales. I’ve currently got three flicks up for sale. I average about one sale a week. Sometimes there are flurries of activity, but that’s the average. Knowing this isn’t going to make me rich, I sell them for $5, a kind of nominal fee to cover expenses. It’s simply comforting to know that once a week or so, another human being has thought of me. I’m hoping this interview will push sales through the roof.
NT: Where does the funding for your work come from? Do you typically need a theater (or theater company) to back a project before it can get started?
ZO: I’ve never received any grant money, not from Europe and sure as Hell not from the USA. So I rely on producing partners in the form of theaters and theater festivals in Europe. It’s a bit like macro crowdsourcing. I pitch my new idea to several theaters in Europe, and if they want to go with it, they come on as co-producers. deSingel Theater in Antwerp has been a tremendously supportive partner, as has Black Box Theater in Oslo.
NT: The Great Pretender is your most typical movie, as far as its production goes (i.e. you had a cast and a crew, etc.). How was this process compared to the more extreme independence of your previous productions? Were there any noteworthy difficulties?
ZO: Noteworthy difficulties? Yes, sir. The stress was so high, the skin peeled off my scrotum two-thirds of the way into the shoot. That’s a hell of a thing. I’ve got a picture and doctor’s records to prove it. So it was infinitely more difficult than the completely independent or nearly independent process. But ultimately, I take responsibility for that. I bit off more than I could chew, and I made some poor decisions. However, the final film and project are beautiful, and my balls repaired themselves, bigger than ever.
NT: I truly hope that that disgusting-sounding picture makes it into your next movie! Speaking of which, do you have any ideas about what your next project will be?
ZO: As mentioned previously, I’m thinking about Paul Newman, specifically his somewhat obscure 1967 film Hombre, and my dying father. As Paul states matter-of-factly, “We all die. It’s just a matter of when.” Isn’t that beautiful? It’s Hamlet’s “Let be” speech morphed into a country & western haiku. That’s what I’d like to think I make. Cinematic C&W haikus.
NT: Is there anything people can do to help you with your work?
ZO: I’ve been very lucky to have not only the financial help of deSingel theater, but also their help in allowing Mr. Kiarostami to film reconstructions with them, and to film the trial of Aaron Aaronovich. And my producer/manager for the past several years, Nicole Schuchardt, has been quite helpful, as has been my technician and stand-in stuntman, David Lang. I always ask for their creative input. However, the core of the creative process remains, for better or worse, inside my broken heart.
NT: Do you have an ultimate goal with your creative career? What would “success” look like for you?
ZO: I would love to recover the feeling of success that I had while making Flooding. I never thought anyone would see it, and I never enjoyed myself more than when making that film. Which I guess means that success is simply not giving a shit whatsoever, right down to the bone, what other people think. I’d like to be that brave again. Short of that, and I swear to G-d I’m not making this up, success would mean seeking out an ancient Hapkido master on a hilltop in Japan and convince him to teach me Hapkido, the Ancient Way. When I was finished, which I wouldn’t even realize until he told me an ancient Japanese parable, I would leave him and never see him again. Which would be sad because I loved him. I would then return to the USA, and dress like Elvis Presley circa 1968, and use my Hapkido skills to smack the shit out of political partisans. Then I’d settle down with Miley Cyrus and open a bowling alley. I already know what I’d call it. “The Beggar’s Bowl.” Then somewhere in the darkness, I would break even, but in my final words Miley would find an Ace that she could keep.
NT: Now for the lightning round! If you could change one specific thing, what would you change?
ZO: My brain. I’d make it stupid and happy.
NT: What’s one thing that more people should know about?
ZO: I hate to break the bad news, but people should know that posting political articles on Facebook is not only useless, but also terribly self-important. It’s masturbation in the form of “I’m enlightening other people.” I don’t like to be judgmental, but come on folks, enough’s enough.
NT: Do you ever think about how your “sampling” of popular culture relates to the sampling done in hiphop?
ZO: No. I could if pressed to do so.
NT: Any thoughts on how the remake/sequel culture of the past decade of Hollywood cinema relates to your work?
ZO: Your brother. Remember? in fact began as a Hollywood remake. After my debut effort Flooding, which was a Hollywood blockbuster and made me a Hollywood star, I thought, “What should I do now? I’m a Hollywood star, I guess I should follow in the footsteps of Hollywood.” Hollywood remakes its own movies approximately every 20 years. Fortunately I had 20 year old movies in the form of the home movies I made with my older brother. But whereas Hollywood updates their remakes with the latest stars and music and editing fads and hair styles and appropriate body fat ratios and steroids, I thought why not try to keep every aspect the same, thus highlighting the differences of past and present. I’m very fond of before-and-after photos, and I wanted to do the same thing with film. Thus the technical concept of YbR was born. It only became a love letter to my brother and JCVD in post-production.
NT: Why did you move to Europe and would you recommend it to others?
ZO: Long story. Burnt out in NYC. Detained for 3 days by immigration in London. I make my living in Europe. Tired of flying across the Atlantic twice a month. But I missed America, living in Berlin. I love America’s freedoms. I love her well-deserved pride. I love the English language. I hope to create a dual residence, both in Berlin and somewhere here in America. I would not recommend it to others unless you speak the language of the country where you’re going. Don’t believe anyone that says, “Don’t worry, you don’t need to speak ——– in ——–, everyone here speaks English.” Unless you’re going to a Scandinavian country, that is a lie.
NT: Where do you think you’ll settle next?
ZO: See answer above. Lawrence, Kansas is a distinct possibility. On a national level, it’s very centrally located. I wish I toured in the USA.
NT: Any book/movie/music recommendations?
ZO: I just read Event by my fellow Slovenian, Slavoj Žižek. Great book, he’s a real genius and cinephile. He often uses films, both classical and pop, to illustrate his philosophical theories. Other than the raving lunatic Communist manifesto he ends the book with, great reading.
– Nick Toti (@NickTotiis)
Here are some links:
Watch Flooding with Love for The Kid: http://www.zacharyoberzan.com/flooding.html
Watch Your brother. Remember?: http://www.zacharyoberzan.com/ybr.html
Watch Tell Me Love Is Real: http://www.zacharyoberzan.com/tmlir.html