Sunday, April 30, 2006

2006 SFIFF—The Evening Class Interview With Lev Yilmaz

At the opening night party—inbetween my first Skyy martini that was already enough and my third which made me thirsty for a fourth—I was introduced by my filmbud Gustavo Fernandez to Lev Yilmaz, creator of Tales of Mere Existence, which will be included among the collection of animated shorts—Drawing Lines—this coming Thursday noon at the Kabuki. Sample sketches of Tales of Mere Existence"The Times I Have Smoked Pot", "Horny", "My Successful Friends", "Goodlooking" and "Pickle"—can be found online. They only whetted my appetite, however, so Gustavo loaned me his copies of the first two dvds of Tales of Mere Existence available from Lev's website. I found them hilarious and approached Lev for an interview.

* * *

The Evening Class: How did you start going with Tales of Mere Existence? Did you have training in college?

LY: To a degree. I went to art school. I didn't really study film. I studied art video and other forms of drawing, painting and whatnot. I really did wind up adding an unusual approach to it. I never learned anything about doing the proper narrative. I've been doing my own video work for a while and then I did the first piece in this style just completely as an experiment. But it was so simple and it was so much fun that I just did another one. And then after maybe about three or four I started thinking that it actually could be a series because I had never really done anything that was a series before. So through the evolution of that I think is really when that—the more I did it—the more important the story became to me every time and now it winds up being absolutely the top of everything. Everything is very story-oriented.

EC: A perfect voice for you! Just as an aside, have you seen Art School Confidential?

LY: Sure.

EC: What'd you think? Any similar experiences with that?

LY: Some. Weirdly enough, even though I did go to art school, I think I related to Ghost World more. Art School Confidential has, perhaps, a lot more normal moviemaking sensibilities to it. To me, anyway, Ghost World was one of the greatest little portraits of this general sort of alienation that really really hit home to me, probably I think one of the best documents—one of the really best high-profile documents of freak pride that I've ever seen.

EC: The technique that you use in your animation, how would you describe it? Is it parchment paper you're using?

LY: I actually completely lifted the technique really from an obscure old arthouse movie called The Mystery of Picasso where the filmmaker [Clouzot] spent a few days with Picasso in his studio. Picasso painted on transluscent canvases and [Clouzot] shot him from the other side, shot the canvases from the other side. I sort of took that and just added narration to it. Naturally, my drawing style is incredibly crude and I only care about getting the point across then I will stop the drawings there.

EC: The point getting across is the point! The narrative. I'm sure Picasso did not have your acerbic witty narrative.

LY: He made up for it in other ways. [Laughter.]

EC: That's what is pleasing people. When I first saw it I just busted a gut because there's something about the combination of the simplicity of the line drawings in process, and then the voiceover. So what I was wondering was, do you film first, and then you add soundtrack?

LY: Oh no. The part that takes the longest is definitely getting the story right. It's not just getting the story right, but it's also just making sure that there isn't a single wasted word in there. Generally the way that I'll do it is I'll write it and then I'll do a mock recording. I'll just read it out, and then I'll listen to it, I'll listen to it a few times. Usually, I'll drink about a half bottle of wine. I figure if it holds my attention if I'm half-drunk it will hold anybody's attention when they're completely sober.

EC: So it's real-time as it's filmed? You're actually drawing and talking at the same time?

LY: No. Because I record the soundtrack first.

EC: Gotcha. That's what I was wondering about.

LY: If there's any animator in the world who doesn't record the soundtrack first, I don't know about them. Somebody must do it but very very few people do.

EC: That just draws focus on just how excellent the timing of the editing is, the way you've already structured a picture and then just add a few things, then the voiceover, it's so skillfully done. Are you really that character? Who is that character?

LY: It's definitely like, y'know, it's part of me. I think as a person I definitely cope better than I think the character does but it's probably definitely the part of me that doesn't feel like coping. That sort of thing.

EC: What I like about him is he's a guy with dark thoughts. Your portraits of envy, of bitterness, of jealousy are acute and spot on. I was watching it again for about the fifth time, every time I show it to a new friend because I keep turning them on to it, and it's always interesting to me to see them go, "I know that! I know that!" Especially the most popular ones are "Procrastination". Everybody knows that one. I've had several guys relate to the one about the ex-girlfriends and the sex they're having with their current partners. A lot of people like that one. I've only seen the first two and you have a third one coming out?

LY: Yeah, it's going to be coming out pretty soon. The more that it goes on, the more that it expands. And probably my favorite piece which I am going to be showing on Thursday at the festival is a piece called "Conversation" that is probably one of my favorite episodes of the series, I think. It's different because it's a conversation between two people and I'm saying, "And then I said" "and then she said" and just kind of narrating it out like that. But it's the conversation that the couple has in the video store trying to figure out what to rent and it winds up completely bringing up all this fucked up stuff that's happened in their relationship.

EC: Great! So where do the ideas come from?

LY: Where do you think that one came from?! [Laughter] I almost didn't have to write that one. That one was taken moreorless verbatim from a conversation with a girl … a wonderful girl that I was with for a few years, but it didn't work out. But it was taken essentially verbatim from that.

EC: I enjoy the pacing of the humor. Especially I noticed by the second one, I watched the first one and you had developed certain ideas, but by the second one you got a little tighter and you started to do this very rapid delivery. The timing is hilarious. Do you have certain comics that you emulate or that you picked that up from, that kind of comic timing?

LY: The funny thing is that a lot of the influences that I wound up having are influences of probably a generation before mine. I was very much a loner when I was a kid so the sorts of things that … and really, more than watching t.v., I stole a bunch of my dad's old comedy records so that a lot of—I bet you that a lot of the pacing kind of comes from just listening to comedians from the early 60s. I was a huge huge fan of the early Bill Cosby comedy records, the ones that he did before he became America's favorite t.v. dad. He was just an outstanding stand-up comedian, a storyteller really. Him, and a bunch of old Mike Nichols and Elaine May records. It's just something that I began to just sort of … the more that I was playing with material of my own, I began to really realize that even a quarter of a second can be the difference between not funny and funny.

EC: Exactly! That's what I'm saying. The timing is impeccable and it's counterpointed against a drollness, kind of a throwaway delivery. That's what makes it work. It's perfect.

LY: The droning delivery, that I definitely started in the early pieces. Everybody starts from somewhere and that delivery was absolutely influenced by Stephen Wright but then it changed after a while, it really evolved.

EC: Tell me about the Comedy Central gig; what's that about?

LY: What happened was that I was on a—it still shows every once in a while, I don't think very often—but it was this late-night stoner program called Jump Cuts. Usually when they first brought it out it was on at midnight and now every once in a while still they'll have—they only made four episodes of this thing, I was in all four episodes—but now they have marathons every once in a while starting at two and ending at four and just show all four episodes of Jump Cuts. Since then, now that a lot of the material is out on their podcasts, you can get it online. If you find it, let me know. I don't have a video Ipod so I haven't actually even seen it myself.

EC: I'll go looking for it. You're primarily a completely independent entrepreneur, right?

LY: Absolutely, I'm a one-man band.

EC: I'm impressed with that. How is the website working for you?

LY: My website?

EC: Yeah, do you have outreach? Are you getting orders through the website?

LY: Absolutely! That's one of the things that's been pretty amazing is that I've really managed to move a remarkable number of copies of the books. It is completely doing it myself. I'm surprised that it's worked as well as it has. I'm not really part of the comics community much but guys in the comics community have said that the number of copies I've been able to sell just entirely by myself without a distributor even has been very competitive to like the average—not like a Marvel comic release but an alternative comic release—that I've really given them a run for their money.

EC: That's great! Is that an independence you want to maintain or are you looking for a distributor?

LY: I would love to find a distributor! I would love to find a publisher! The thing is people are just … how easy do you think it was for the first guy who invented the smoothie to get it off the ground? It's an apple, right? No, it's not, it's kind of an apple and an orange. But is it an orange or is it an apple, I can't tell? People will freak and fuck out anytime you do anything that is even a little bit out of the ordinary like that. It's been hard to get your normal comic strip distributors or your book distributors to pay any attention to it. If I don't find a distributor, it's really not that bad to continue to do it myself. Whatever.

EC: Would you do stand-up comedy, anything like that? Is that something you'd be interested in?

LY: When I hear the term "stand-up comedy" I practically twitch because I've seen so few stand-up comedians that I really like. But I've got a great admiration—instead of stand-up comedy I kind of wonder when I don't know if I want to carry on this form of thing—I wonder if storytelling appears to sort of work in this same kind of vein, closer to the way when you hear David Sedaris talking, it's hilarious, his delivery is great.

EC: Or Guy Maddin! Have you heard Guy Maddin?

LY: I'm not sure.

EC: He's hilarious.

LY: The ones that I've heard the most of is mainly Sedaris. I've heard Douglas Adams reading a few of his books, which were wonderful, so I wonder about that. I've started to give that a little bit of thought. I've done … there's a few … because I've started to do it actually, to do some storytelling live, and it's totally fucking nervewracking but it's also an awful lot of fun.

EC: Where do you do that?

LY: You're a local, right?

EC: Yes.

LY: I did Porchlight once and that was a blast! It was really really a lot of fun. And then I did a reading over at—I don't even remember what the show was—sometime late last year. And then did it again over at some smaller places, these like small performances that my friend puts on. But I'm thinking about getting more into it.

EC: Do you ever go to the Bad Movie nights at the Dark Room on Mission?

LY: Jesus Christ, of course!

EC: You would be a great funny guest commentator. You know how they have three or four guys, usually in front, commenting on the movie?

LY: You know something? There are very different kinds of senses of humor that people have. I'm not one of those people. I'm lucky that, occasionally, if I'm really comfortable with people then I can be a fast commentator. Do you ever know some of those people who are incredibly incredibly funny on their feet and can react and respond to anything and really make you laugh? And you would think, wow, I betcha this person would be a great comedy writer! It almost never works. Because since their sense of humor they're able to express in this way, they don't have a need to express it in another way. The people who are funniest on paper are just because they're frustrated, they can't think fast enough on their feet, they're funny in another way, another avenue. It's something I've seen a million times. There are exceptions of course, but, it's a tendency I've seen.

EC: You have the third disk coming out. So what's in your future? What are you aiming for? What do you see going on?

LY: I would really like the most if I could find a publisher or distributor or whatnot. I wonder if it would happen easier actually in Europe rather than here because the stuff has gone over rather well in America but the audiences respond even stronger in Europe.

EC: You've tested that?

LY: I actually did a little French tour early last year!

EC: Cool! That's cool! I think you're one of the finest young comic talents that I've seen in a long time. And I watch a lot. I really appreciate that you give me the time to talk a little bit. I want to watch what you do. I'll definitely see you this coming Thursday at noon!


Brian Darr said...

Yeah Lev's stuff is excellent. I also saw one of his non-animated pieces that was completely bizarre and hilarious. And, as you've experienced, he's a really good guy to talk to, as I've had to the fortune to do on a few occasions.

Michael Guillen said...

I'm truly looking forward to watching his work on a large screen tomorrow!