Friday, February 01, 2008

TREThe Evening Class Interview With Eric Byler

When Eric Byler's narrative feature Tre played at the 2007 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, it immediately polarized critics and—as the film is poised to open theatrically this weekend in Los Angeles and a couple of weeks later in the Bay Area—I imagine the response will continue to be mixed. San Francisco Chronicle critic G. Allen Johnson dismissed Tre as "a borefest" even as Dennis Harvey dispatched to Variety that Tre was the "most compelling" of Byler's three films with characters etched "in terse, credible, assertive strokes that resist 'explaining all' in terms of personal histories"; a "sharply realized" project that "sports juicy conflicts and prickly dialogue, though the directorial approach remains judiciously low-key." I'd have to concur with Harvey and wonder if Johnson wasn't too busy being bored to pay attention to the film in front of him?

I would argue careful attention is requisite in watching an
Eric Byler film, whose cadences are exploratory, circumabulating around the doubts and fears of the lovelorn with wary curiosity. I first met Eric when he brought his third narrative feature AMERICANese to the 2006 San Francisco International Asian American film festival, where I likewise wrote up his panel discussion with author Shawn Wong regarding the adaptation of Wong's novel into Byler's film.

Byler graduated from Wesleyan University where his senior thesis film, Kenji's Faith, went on to be selected for the Sundance Film Festival in 1995, won six film festival awards and was a regional finalist in the Student Academy Awards. His first feature film,
Charlotte Sometimes was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards in 2003: The John Cassavetes Award for Best Feature under $500,000 and a Best Supporting Actress Award for Jacqueline Kim. The film was called "fascinating and illuminating" by film critic Roger Ebert and won numerous festival awards, including the Audience Award at the South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW), The Special Jury Prize at the Florida Film Festival and The Best Dramatic Feature at the San Diego Asian Film Festival. The film was distributed theatrically by Visionbox and Small Planet Pictures before being released on DVD.

Byler's second feature Tre won a Special Jury Award at the 2007 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. His third feature,
AMERICANese is an adaptation of Shawn Wong's seminal Asian American novel, American Knees. It won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at SXSW, in addition to a Special Jury Prize for Outstanding Ensemble Cast, which includes Joan Chen, Kelly Hu, Ben Shenkman, Autumn Reeser, Chris Tashima, Allison Sie and Michael Paul Chan. The film will be released by IFC First Take in 2008.

Byler also directed the PBS/ITVS Television pilot, My Life Disoriented and is currently producing and directing documentaries about Asian Pacific Islander political empowerment. He is also teaming with filmmakers Annabel Park and Jeff Man on an interactive documentary about the immigration battle in Northern Virginia called
9500 Liberty. Byler is a member of the Directors Guild of America and the Writers Guild of America.

After several failed attempts to hook up for an interview, I was delighted that Eric Byler and I were finally able to do so on the eve of Tre's theatrical distribution.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Eric, to be honest with you, when I first saw Tre last year at the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival, I found it exasperating, which is to say that it was an uncomfortable viewing experience for me because the film demanded a requisite engagement on my part, attracting attention to a somewhat unattractive protagonist. Sitting with the film all these many months, I've come to respect the level of discomfort it caused in me, which revolves around a term that comes up a lot when reviewers write about your films; namely, that they're "anti-romantic." Is that a fair characterization?

Eric Byler: Well, yes, but only if I get a chance to clarify—does that sound like a politician?—I don't mean that I'm against romance and I hope that's not what people mean when they say that the films are anti-romantic; but, in the sense that a hero can be an anti-hero—not necessarily because he's the villain but because he has the same flaws, the same doubts, the same challenges that people have in real life and, in that way, is different than the way heroes are depicted typically in movies—then, yes, that's how I approach romance: with all the flaws and the doubts, the pitfalls and the disappointments and not typically the way romance is depicted in movies.

Guillén: Let's explore that. Why the movie grew on me as time went on is precisely because I think it's brave of you as a filmmaker in your examination of relationships to create a hero who is heroic precisely because he is diving towards an interactional authenticity. The romance you are "against" is actually the commodified version supplied in movies, meant to feed consumer desire. In your effort to provide a more accurate portrayal of relationship, you remind me of Ingmar Bergman's films—such as Scenes From A Marriage—where he fearlessly explores the vengeful underpinnings of passion. Which filmmakers have influenced you in your own cinematic renderings of relationship?

Byler: The goal is to have the influence come from real life and not from movies. Too many movies are inspired from other movies and that's how the genres become so repetitive and why so many of us are just tuning out with the studio fare. But the movies that really made me aware that it was okay to tell the stories that were inspired by life as opposed to other people's movies were films like Carnal Knowledge, Five Easy Pieces, Sex, Lies & Videotape, Midnight Cowboy and The Graduate; films where the relationships are so complex. Five Easy Pieces was the one that really blew my mind. The Robert Dupea character played by Jack Nicholson has many of the kinds of flaws you see in Tre. In fact, in some scenes Daniel Cariaga's performance as Tre reminds me of Jack Nicholson's: for instance, the hobby vs. work argument that he has with Kakela (Kimberly-Rose Wolter) shows no reservation about dissecting someone with the truth that is in their own heart that he can see.

I draw from life, but also lessons I've learned from the masters and those films that were already doing that shortly before I was born. When I rediscovered that era of American cinema when American studios were making art films, and the best and most talented directors and actors were collaborating on art films, that was when I said, "I can do that." The main difference is that I would say I'm influenced by films that were made longer ago than, say, most of the people making films modeled after last year's crop of festival darlings.

Guillén: And thank God for that! It's interesting that you reference those films as influential because those were the films I was watching as a teenager that were affecting me as a young person trying to learn how to get along with people and fall in love.

Byler: I wouldn't recommend those films for a 15-16 year old and I don't recommend my films to anyone who hasn't had their heart broken. You need to have been there once to understand Charlotte Sometimes and Tre. You need to have committed crimes in the arena of love that you're ashamed of and wish you could take back. Heartbreak is really the only thing that brings people there and—if you notice in both of those films—it's heartbreak that causes the most shameful betrayals.

Guillén: And yet those betrayals are necessary illuminations to further growth.

Byler: Yeah. You could say that in Tre the betrayals allow the characters to escape their cycle of loneliness and disenchantment. Not that they find anyone, but that they finally break the circuit and are able to grow up.

Guillén: Exactly, with becoming an embodied individual superceding the romantic myth of the couple. What I appreciate in all of your films is their rebellion against that myth, that there's not an easy reliance on commodified notions of love, even as your characters accept the daunting task of continuing to look for love. Which leads me to ask—since the task is so daunting—who are your films for? Who is your audience?

Byler: I honestly don't make the movies with that in mind. The best answer—in terms of when I'm conceiving the film—is me. I'm making films that I would like to see. I would love if someone who watched one of my films had the reaction that I had when I saw Five Easy Pieces. I should mention McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye, films where Robert Altman turned genre into an art film. I would love if people could say when they see one of my films, "Oh my God, you really can be that honest! You really can be that revealing. You really can be that daring." But I certainly wouldn't be sad if they'd already seen some of those great films; but, if you were born after that era, you have to find a way to discover them. A lot of younger people grew up thinking that movies made before Aliens are all dumb.

Guillén: The flip side to the question of who is your audience and what are you asking of them is what are you asking of yourself as you mature as a filmmaker?

Byler: When I get back into narrative filmmaking, I think I might be a different person and be making different films; but, I'm not sure exactly who I'll be and what those films will be. The three pictures I've made are all seeking to answer the unanswered questions from my twenties, especially Tre and Charlotte Sometimes because those films are not based on a novel written by someone with more life experience. Now that I'm in my thirties, those stories, maybe in my life I haven't quite answered those questions but my films may move into perhaps a little bit more political awareness, a more political commentary, which I really shied away from early in my films. In fact, I would vehemently resist being pinned down for having a political agenda in making Charlotte Sometimes. Now, I'm not ashamed to share my views.

Guillén: You've actually been doing some constructive and effective political filmmaking through your YouTube projects, namely your engagement with last Fall's Virginia race and currently with the Presidential primaries. You're saying, then, that you do think this political work will affect your future feature filmmaking?

Byler: It might. I just know and feel that I'm a different person now and—because my films are so personal—my films will change; but, I'm still discovering who I'm becoming and so I can't predict how my films will change. I know that I could continue to make anti-romances and make them well and I probably will make more of them; but, I've changed through this process and I'm glad I have. I find it more rewarding to make a difference than to make a movie, frankly. I don't know if that means the films will be better or worse in the eyes of others.

Guillén: As someone in their mid-fifties, my life experience has taught me that the personal is political. I consider your filmmaking a potential bridge between the personal and the political, being that you're so attuned to the true examination of the personal, which informs politics much more than it's given due.

One of my favorite scenes in Tre, and its appropriate tagline, is that a whole life can change on the basis of 10 seconds. The scene where you have Nina (Alix Koromzay) count out the 10 seconds reveals it's not a dismissive amount of time. The importance of that 10 seconds reminded me of martial philosophy in the sense that every battle is won or lost at a particular moment in the melee, at a particular pivot on the battlefield, and it seems that—as a filmmaker—you are keen on capturing those moments when individuals change.

Byler: If you were to create a formula for Charlotte Sometimes and Tre—and, by the way, I hope to create a third film where characters from the two films intersect more substantially because the intersection here is peripheral—but, if you were to create a formula for the first two, you ask the question: could an ordinary life be depicted as a movie? Can you find something universal and revealing in a life that doesn't include saving the Earth from a comet that's going to destroy us all or a life that doesn't include running from zombies? [Laughter.] That never happens to any of my characters. It's not the events that make their stories extraordinary; it's the character of their hearts. It's who they are as people.

My hypothesis is that in any person's life, any person that's ever lived, there was a period of time when they were most alive, when everything mattered, when they felt that everything in their life up to that point had led to this particular moment or this particular night and everything that followed was in some sense an aftermath. We could all find that time in our lives if we look back. If there was a movie about my life it would be about the two weeks that led up to that night, after which everything else was just an epilog. In Charlotte Sometimes and in Tre you see four people in each movie who all go through that experience in a short span of time. None of them are going to go down in history. None of them are going to run for public office. None of them will ever fire a weapon at an extraterrestrial. But those extraordinary moments that they lived, any human being could live if they're really open to falling in love or if they have conflicts about being open to falling in love, which is the essence of the title characters in both films.

Guillén: I agree with you on that and it reminds me of what the diarist Anaïs Nin—infamous for recording everyday moments—once described as the large dimension of small gestures. You don't have to be dodging comets or avoiding zombies to feel the drama of your own biography as it's unfolding, moment by moment. As I said earlier, the battlefield of life has these pivots when people change. It'd be fair to say life contains a succession of these moments where everything turns and the individual personality shifts into a larger dimension.

Byler: That's true. I could probably make two or three movies out of most people's lives.

Guillén: These moments are frequently placed within silence in your films. Can you speak to your use of silence to further narrative?

Byler: I only notice the silence in my movies when I spend a lot of time watching "normal" movies and then I come back to mine. Silence is not so uncommon in life and my movies are, as I've said, always an attempt to try to come as close as possible to approximating real life. The choices I make artistically are not necessarily defined by or governed by choices other filmmakers have made. In the case of silence, if a film is about loneliness—as Charlotte Sometimes and AMERICANese both are—you can't depict loneliness without the ache of time. A really quick scene about loneliness I can't imagine I can do sincerely. So, yeah, there are these sprawling long takes that show a person alone in their apartment. I don't know why I've always been interested in what people do when they're alone and how observing them can tell you something about their characters when they don't intend to be emoting or communicating with anyone; they're alone. You really can't do that anywhere but in a movie because—in real life—just as soon as there are two people there, there's something of a performance and a little bit of artifice involved. Here, not only in the scenes about loneliness but in scenes where people interact, in both of those films and in Tre you see people that are hiding more than they show. It's sort of the opposite of the way that most people might approach a movie where a character is designed to emote as much as possible to provide as much information to the audience as possible in a limited amount of time because you know the commercial is coming soon. I assume that if you sit down to watch an Eric Byler movie, you're okay with a slightly unorthodox approach to storytelling and you're not going to begrudge me a secret or a subtlety or a moment of pause or silence.

Guillén: I would group your films as well into a category of film being called "contemplative cinema" where the camera is aimed at everyday life, often in long still takes, to allow the inherent drama of life to emerge without being bullied by an imposed narrative.

Byler: That's the illusion that the films create. I have a specific approach to achieving that illusion; but, obviously, it's not true that these are real people. But, yeah, that's what I'm trying to present. Everything, in terms of where I place the camera, the way I direct the actors, the way I write the script, the way we change the script as we're filming, the way many of the scenes are actually shot as improvisations, all of those things are designed to create that illusion. I don't want people watching the movie and thinking about my storytelling or my directing or my agenda. I want them to believe for that 90 minutes that these characters are real people who existed before the movie started and will continue to exist after the movie's over.

Guillén: Speaking of improvisation, can you speak a little bit about how you work with your actors to capture that feel you're going for?

Byler: The basic premise is that if you've simply memorized a series of desired results and then attempted to execute them, they're not going to have the nuance and complexity and chaos of real life. I try to capture that nuance and complexity and chaos while we're shooting the scene. When the story's already scripted, it's easy to fall into a series of memorized results. You have to find ways to keep it alive. One of the ways that I do that is I don't allow the actors to memorize their cadence or reaction to a line. I make it very clear that how the scene develops and how they react and whether they dare to touch someone or dare to kiss someone depends on what they read from the other actor. They'll actually see me whisper to his or her scene partner a specific direction that he [or she] knows will surprise him [or her]. During the actual take, it's alive because you have no idea what direction it's going to go. You have an idea what [your scene partner] is going to say, but your scene partner might say something completely different than what you were expecting and you'll have to react to that.

In Tre we used that technique a few times. The first two that came to mind were both after sex scenes. Gabe (Erik McDowell) and Kakela have sex and I secretly instructed Erik McDowell to ask Kakela if she came. After the sex part of the scene, there was some dialogue I wanted to capture. Kimberly's reaction was beautiful and so much more beautiful than it would have been if it was written on the page and she was expecting it. Another example is after Nina and Tre have sex, an unscripted line I asked Daniel to say was, "You're not the kind of woman who usually does this. I can tell by the way you hold me." Alix's reaction [as Nina] was so beautiful because she didn't expect that to happen. She didn't expect him to say that. Her reaction—"How do I hold you?"—was improvised. That was what she wanted to know as Nina, but as Alix I suppose, about that moment and why he chose to say that. Daniel's decision to leave was also something that just happened spontaneously and we had to go and shoot another shot to cover it; but, that's one of the great things you can do when you're shooting digitally: to have that complexity to roll with the way the improvisations go. [It's important to have] actors know at every moment that something could change and that something I whispered to the scene partner could throw the scene in a different direction and answer some of the overarching questions that they know their characters are seeking to answer in the process of making the film and exploring the story, that they look at the whole movie as a discovery, not as an execution of pre-determined results.

Guillén: Sounds like it's a challenge as well as fun to work with you on the set.

Byler: I don't know if the actors would say it was "fun" because there's an emotional wringer they have to go through. I do try to get to know them as people as much as possible and change the characters to match their own life stories. I'm open with them and they're open with me about their weaknesses, insecurities and their worst fears, the things that they need most, and a lot of the time it's the same for all people but I'm able to sharpen the character by allowing the actor to be themselves and be in character at the same time. The super objectives, these questions—sometimes they're not even objectives but questions—Tre, for instance, his overarching question is could a woman like Kakela, or any woman for that matter, truly love him as he is? Or do they see him as a sexual object in the same way that he tries to see women? In particular, did Kakela really love him or was she just—as he says at the end of the film—using him so that she wouldn't marry Gabe?

Daniel knew that Kim and I had written the script together and he felt that we were keeping secrets from him. [Laughter.] But that's how I like the actors to feel and that the answer was something that we were going to reveal. I tried to make Daniel believe that it would be discovered and that I wasn't even steering it in any direction, it could go either way, and every scene was written to move things in any way; but, the truth is that I am manipulating the nuances as I go along. In certain scenes I'm getting both, or two or three different variations that will help me craft the overall arc and giving me options later because the way that the final scene went would ultimately color how it would edit scenes that come before that in the movie. The most important thing is that the actors believe that these questions are not already answered so that—as they live each moment—they don't know the future. They don't know their destiny. Everything is shot out of order in a film shoot, but—if they don't know the answers to the questions—in a sense, they don't know the ending of the story. Then every moment is that much more closer to approximating the uncertainty and the complexity of real life.

Guillén: That irresolution is as much of a working definition to describe my discomfort watching the film as anything. These questions raised by the characters in the film are the fabric of existence. It isn't about the answers really. It's about properly articulating the questions. That's the narrative arc of a person's life. I appreciate that as a filmmaker you don't try to impose false answers either on your audience or on your acting ensemble.

Byler: That's true. Life never really does come to a resolution until you die.

Guillén: And we don't really know if death is a resolution. The jury's forever out on that one. Notwithstanding, it's the irresolute that I find so powerful in your examinations of relationship. Tre is here and there being described as a "quasi-sequel" to Charlotte Sometimes and you mentioned your wish to do a third feature combining the characters of your first two. Can you expand on that?

Byler: I would really like to see what would happen when Tre meets Charlotte. That's what I've been chewing on. If you look at them, they are two sides of the same coin. Tre is the male version of Charlotte. If you look at the structure of the constellation of characters and even the spatial relationships, you have this stranger-comes-to-town structure and—in both cases—it happens to be a person who has an incisive, penetrating wit and a crushing vulnerability that they hide with a ferocious, aggressive wall. They seem to be the most dangerous characters, each of them, but ultimately they're the ones who are hurt the most. I would love to do a movie where you meet the characters that they've become and you see how they interact together. Again, it would be an exploration because I've never gotten Jacqueline Kim (Charlotte Sometimes) and Daniel together before. I've never seen them together; but, I have a hunch that it would be fascinating.

Guillén: I want to see Charlotte and Tre go toe to toe! [Laughter.] What is the distribution strategy with Tre? How are you hoping to get this film out?

Byler: Like a lot of the low-budget indie films, you go as long as the money lasts. You start in cities where you feel that you're confident that you have an audience—for my films that would be the multi-ethnic metropolitan areas—and then you see how long it runs. In the case of Charlotte Sometimes, it ran for several months and ended up making it to over 30 cities. With Tre, we're starting out with less money so I don't know if we'll last as long and I don't know if I want to travel to as many cities as with Charlotte Sometimes. We are going to go to L.A., Chicago, San Francisco, Honolulu, New York and D.C. Those are places where Charlotte Sometimes did well so those are the cities we'll be sure to hit. The South Carolina and Texas venues that Charlotte Sometimes made it to, I don't know if Tre will be as fortunate. Even Charlotte Sometimes, a helluva lot more people saw it on DVD than during theatrical.

Guillén: Regarding your other projects, what became of your TV pilot My Life Disoriented?

Byler: We had hoped that it would spawn a real series on a network. PBS doesn't do series so we knew we were on a dead-end track with PBS but we hoped that we would capture the attention of one of the main networks. Unfortunately, a lot of the channels that would have been right for us began to have financial problems about that time and have now folded. Then, the networks have the same mindset from the previous decade, which is that the Asian best friend is allowable but you can't have a story in which the people that you go home with at the end of the day are also Asian. It took us a long time just to convince them that a hospital in San Francisco should have some Asian people. Now they have hospitals in major cities that have Asians in them but when you go home everybody's white. But they do reflect how Caucasian people experience life—they go to work and see the multiethnic world—but then they go home and their family's white and that's how television series are designed these days.

Guillén: And what about AMERICANese?

Byler: AMERICANese we plan to release later this year. It's interesting, neither of the two movies wanted to open first. Tre ended up being the one that opened first. There are also some contractual things that have to be worked out before AMERICANese can come out between the financer and the distributor. I've just been too busy to get myself involved in all that so I don't even have any details.

Guillén: Sure. Finally, what about your YouTube political work? Where are you going with that?

Byler: I really hope that I'm going to spend the year supporting
Barack Obama's candidacy for President. It's great to be part of a movement where there is a leader who inspires people so easily to take on that civic duty—that "Ask not what your country can do for you" feeling—that I see returning even in the hearts and minds of people who believed in it once a generation ago and had their hearts broken. I see those people daring to fall in love again. It's beautiful. As far as the younger generation—people younger than me who I have been struggling for many years to engage and motivate to take on that responsibility—I really feel young people will lead this country in the right direction. All of the hatemongering ideas about voting against your own best interests because you hate Gays and you love your country kind of thing doesn't make any sense to people under 35. Whatever else it is, hating Latino immigrants or hating Muslims more than you love your country, none of us get that. If we could just find a way to break this cycle where the politicians annoy us and turn us off, mislead us and manipulate us, and therefore we don't want to have any part of the process, and then the politicians get away with these misleading, manipulative propaganda grenades because we're too disinterested to know better—which is basically how our political process works—if someone comes along who can communicate with us and who we trust and who we want to listen to, someone who can explain to the American people what our problems are and how we can work to solve them, and actually engage people in that "ask not what your country can do for you" mindset—we could really make those changes that everybody's talking about a reality. It would be so much easier for me to continue if Obama is the person who is emblematic of this movement.

Guillén: Eric, I thank you for taking the time today. I wish you the best with the L.A. premiere of Tre this weekend and I look forward to seeing you when the film opens here in the Bay Area.

Cross-published on
Twitch and in condensed format at Entertainment Today.


Peter Nellhaus said...

I hope Tre makes it to Denver. I though Charlotte Sometimes was terrific, and was glad to take advantage of seeing it theatrically.

Michael Guillen said...

I hope you do too, Peter. Let me know what you think once you have the chance to see it.