In Conversation with SABBATICAL’s Brandon Colvin

No other film has stuck with me, from this year, more so Brandon Colvin’s Sabbatical. I still find myself drifting off into the ether of my thoughts, reevaluating and dissecting the muted occurrences (as well as the circumstances of said occurrences) of Colvin’s film. I’ve talked about it extensively on the podcast and even wrote about it for the site, but I was finally able to discuss the film with the man himself.

Going from FRAMES (which appears to be a student project) to working with Robert Longstreet and Kentucker Audley seems like quite the transition. I was wondering if you could expound on how both of them got involved with the project.

Just for clarification, FRAMES was not really student project, though I was quite young and inexperienced. I wrote it when I was an undergraduate senior, then directed it right after I turned 23, about one year after I finished writing it. It wasn’t made for a class or credit or anything, though. It was made in parallel to my academic career. Apart from a two-minute short I made when I was 17 (a surreal, black-and-white, ERASERHEAD-inspired thing), FRAMES was the first film I had ever directed, but was about the third feature script I had written (none of the others were ever produced).

The transition was indeed a big one. The most important part of it was developing a friendship with Kentucker through No Budge. I submitted the film there , as I respected Kentucker’s programming and his work, though I didn’t know him personally at all. FRAMES had a rough time with festivals – as SABBATICAL did, actually – so I was looking for an alternative home for it, a place where it could reach a different audience, one more attuned to its goals. Kentucker liked the film quite a bit and really became a champion for it. He and No Budge raised awareness for the film to a much greater degree than all of the film festivals it played at combined. I was in preproduction on SABBATICAL at that time and my producing partner and editor, Tony Oswald, and I thought we’d ask Kentucker to be in it, since there was a part that suited him. He said, “yes” without even reading the script, if I remember correctly, just because he trusted me and was interested in my work. We had originally planned to cast locally using non-professionals, but we started to be more ambitious once we got the confidence and exposure boost from our No Budge release. Once I had Kentucker on board, it wasn’t as intimidating to ask Robert, who had worked with Kentucker before and knew him. Robert was actually Tony’s idea initially, and the more I thought about it, the more I fell in love with the idea of him in the role. I asked my friend Patrick Brice for Robert’s email address, then sent him the script and offered him the lead. I didn’t know Robert at all, no introduction or anything. He liked the script and the part and accepted the role a couple days later.

Was it intimidating in any fashion working with two indie stalwarts?

It was intimidating mostly insofar as making a film is always intimidating. You’re always struggling to make something that comes as close as it can to the vision that you see and feel, so there is always pressure and fear about screwing up or mishandling a relationship, especially with actors. That line of communication has to be clear and sensitive. Both Robert and Kentucker made it easy for me, though. I never felt intimidated by Kentucker, because we had established a rapport and mutual respect beforehand. I knew he always assumed I knew what I was doing. I think that’s the biggest fear when you’re starting out, that the people who need to trust you won’t trust you. Because of that, you have to know your film and your vision inside and out. If you trust yourself and are genuinely confident, everyone else will be on board. I think that was true with Robert. We had a few long phone conversations that assuaged anxieties on both ends. I was definitely nervous to talk with him at first, but when I realized that he believed in me and understood what I wanted, it all fell away, sort of morphed from anxiety into confidence.

Gotta ask, what’s going on with these uncomfortable masturbation scenes? Both, FRAMES and SABBATICAL have them and SABBATICAL even kicks it up a notch.

That’s a good question. I think I’m really fascinated by the confluence of intimacy and loneliness, the combination of those two things. I think certain sexual interactions are the prime locus for that combination in most people’s experiences. Like, being very physically, erotically vulnerable with a person despite having little sense of who they are or what they feel – the possibility of a very selfish, sort of egotistical sexual relationship, something one-sided but that requires two people. Maybe one person projects what they want onto the other, or uses them for their own ends. They remain alone, despite the ostensible intimacy. There’s some kind of barrier. Masturbation seems appropriate for depicting that dynamic.

I think the masturbation scene in FRAMES is in line with that. Peter wants Vera but can’t access her, only the image of her that he has reconstructed, that he has narrativized. He’s given a meaning to their relationship and her life that might not exist at all. It’s all about his own ego, his self-conception, mapping that onto the exterior world. He has sexual feelings for her, but those feelings themselves are masturbatory, pleasure based on his own fantasies rather than reality. Ultimately, he is alone and on a course toward greater alienation.

In SABBATICAL, the situation is more complex, because the other person is there, in the same space, and she participates. Ben’s masturbation is more like a desperate act, an attempt to connect to Sarah sexually even though he can’t or won’t do it emotionally. He’s a lonely person, trying to get to real connection through the back door. Sexual vulnerability, literal nakedness, is easier for him than emotional nakedness; it’s a path he and Sarah have been down. I think Sarah participates out of pity, mostly, a kind of melancholy affection for someone she used to be close to, who she wants to help, who she still might desire in some way. Perhaps she thinks it could be a way of achieving real connection as well. She’s also maybe doing it out of guilt because she hasn’t told him about her lover. Like, as a token, an apology for that. Still, there is a barrier. He doesn’t try to touch her and she doesn’t touch him until it’s over. They are alone together, performing this act in concert for their own reasons. In my next film, people actually have sex – what a novelty!

You mentioned Vilhelm Hammershoi as an influence on the aesthetics of SABBATICAL. Do you have any other non-cinematic influences?

Oh yeah, definitely. Several painters, especially those who work in the realm of abstract realism: Whistler, Andrew Wyeth, Fernand Khnopff’s later work, Edward Hopper, and Felix Vallotton, among others. In literature, Kierkegaard and Camus were absolutely fundamental to my development as both an artist and a human being. I think their ideas are morally and philosophically ingrained in everything I do. I also love the style of certain short stories, particularly because it’s sort of a naturally elliptical and understated medium. I’m thinking of authors like Hemingway and Carver. From music, Brian Eno is absolutely the most important figure for me, particularly his emphasis on texture and timbre, what might be called the “vertical” qualities of music. I think, analogously, I’m very interested in the vertical qualities of cinema – mise-en-scene, rather than editing. Editing is important to my work of course, but pace and mood tend to be more determined by performance, cinematography, art direction, and sound design.

Do you think “the Hammershoi aesthetic” will be your “look” moving forward or do you see yourself incorporating other artists’ work into your own? Could we, potentially, be seeing a Vallotton/Wyeth/Khnopff-inspired mise-en-scene in your future?

I think the particular look in SABBATICAL will be somewhat confined to that film, especially the color, lighting, and art direction. That’s all stuff I associate with the Hammershoi aesthetic. The other painters will surely crop up in some respect. They all exhibit certain compositional tendencies that I have: strong sense of geometry, planimetric compositions, realistic figures juxtaposed with somewhat abstract surroundings, oblique/profile subject orientation. I’m sure they’ll crop up, and I’ll refer to them at some point in planning certain shots or lighting arrangements. Honestly, though, the #1 visual reference for my next film is Miyazaki’s work, though maybe Miyazaki filtered through some of these painting influences.

I find it intriguing, your interest in interiors (especially, the way you craft them – tight, almost suffocating) and your fascination with “the confluence of intimacy and loneliness” since interiors are the most suitable arena to explore intimacy and loneliness. In confines, close quarters yet lonely all the same.

That is interesting. The next film has a lot of exteriors. I wonder how that will pan out. I sort of think the claustrophobia has more to do with my general preference for tight shot scales and my disinterest in establishing shots and wide angle lenses.

In the essay you wrote that accompanied the VOD release on you mentioned being in a rut, imposter syndrome setting in, in regards to FRAMES. What were your feelings this time around in terms of the film’s release and reception?

Well, SABBATICAL ended up much closer to what I wanted it to be than FRAMES. Part of that was just experience and part was having more skilled collaborators, especially the actors. So, I felt very confident and happy about the film, irrespective of what others had to say. Due to that, the imposter thing didn’t creep in nearly as much.

However, I was very frustrated by the lack of festival play the film received. Several programmers let us know that they liked the film, but didn’t feel it was right for their audience. That felt like code for “This is too inaccessible” or something of that nature. I think that many festivals underestimate their audiences or don’t put enough work into bridging that gap between a challenging film and an audience that needs context to engage with that film. Anyway, the result was that the film didn’t screen much on the circuit, which led me to set up a kind of “tour” of the film – one-night engagements in Dallas, Seattle, Portland, Olympia, St. Louis, and New York. I found that experience very rewarding. I also think that because we assumed we would be in charge of distributing the film, we had a much better plan, which included our limited edition Blu-rays. SABBATICAL has had a much stronger life than FRAMES, and it seems to have had a greater impact on more people. It’s a better film than FRAMES, so that makes sense – even though it is stylistically more extreme in certain ways.

Still, not many people have seen it, even though it’s freely available online. It has received very little critical attention. It’s just nearly impossible to make people aware of your film when you don’t have the resources to push it with advertising. We just don’t have the money or the access that actual distributors have, and no distributors expressed any interest in SABBATICAL. Most probably didn’t know it existed or felt it was completely unmarketable because of our lack of a festival profile. If we had premiered at some place like Berlin, maybe things would be different. That’s a challenge for the next film.

How do you intend to tackle this challenge?

I’m not sure. I think there are certain producers or producer’s reps who could help with that, but I’m not even sure how well that works. As far as I know, you just make the best film you can and hope the programmers like it.

I sensed a dramatic upward shift of confidence in your directing – from FRAMES to SABBATICAL – the increase is almost palpable in SABBATICAL. Did you notice this yourself? If so, what do you attribute it to?

Yeah, definitely. I think most of that comes from experience – knowing what I can and can’t do, having a clearer sense of how something at the script level is going to pan out in the edit, etc. Between those two films, I also gained a lot of technical knowledge, which gave me a firmer grasp on the tools at my disposal and a language for communicating what I wanted more clearly and with more nuance. I also just had more time to prepare SABBATICAL. We sort of rushed into FRAMES, which is what needed to happen. But, it wasn’t ideal, and I was really flying by the seat of my pants, learning as I went. Overall, I was more prepared and surer of what I needed to do with SABBATICAL. I feel the same about my next project, although it has taken a little longer to figure out the script. Still, I won’t be able to have cameras rolling on that until the summer of 2017, unfortunately. I have a PhD dissertation to finish!

What subject is your dissertation covering, if you don’t mind me asking? If I had to guess, the confluence of formal rigor in cinema and interior painters?

Ha! I do have an article that I’ve been preparing about certain painters and certain trends in cinematography. However, my dissertation is about another great interest of mine: performance styles. It’s a stylistic and rhetorical analysis of different modes of realistic performance in contemporary American microbudget films (2010-2015). It covers filmmakers like Joe Swanberg, Matt Porterfield, Tim Sutton, Nathan Silver, the Safdies, Eliza Hittman, Dan Sallitt, etc.

Why do you think interior painters provide such inspiration and/or influence upon form in cinema (I’m thinking about films like SABBATICAL, AMOUR FOU, SIX CENTS IN THE POCKET, Akerman, Bresson, anything comprised exclusively of static shots I guess)? Or, do you think making that connection is merely borne out of our need to find correlations in artforms/works?

I think the urge to interpret static images as painterly makes sense. Static shots tend to be more rigidly composed, more overtly two-dimensional, less organically staged – all elements that make them feel like paintings. I think most filmmakers who partake in a sort of tableau style have a strong interest in painting. The approach is considered very non-cinematic by certain viewers and filmmakers. That seems instructive. I think, generally, the value of painting as an influence on cinema is that it gives us models that are not based on photographic best practices – especially in terms of color and lighting. In photography, there is always a technically correct exposure. There are color charts that ensure your skin tones are completely accurate. In painting, there is no such thing. Painting reminds us that these are creative choices, not technical boxes to check. I remember when SABBATICAL’s trailer was embedded in a No Film School article the first comment was something about how the black levels were botched. There’s a photographic assumption about how black should register in a film, an assumption than homogenizes, that turns a creative choice into a technical exercise. The black levels in SABBATICAL are what they are because we took out the black and turned it grey and brown. I just liked the way it felt. It felt right for the film. The commenter didn’t even say something like, “I wonder why they did that.” He just assumed that we fucked up or didn’t know what we were doing because his frame of reference is so narrow. Painting expands that frame of reference.

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