Tuesday, March 22, 2016

FILMFORT: CARBON (2016)—The Evening Class Interview With Christian Lybrook

Poster design: Mankit Lam.
We are stardust (we're made of million-year-old carbon).
We are golden (we just got caught up in some devil's bargain).—Joni Mitchell

When I first moved to Boise, Idaho, I was delighted to discover an ambitious film production scene. Idaho had already introduced me years earlier to the importance of regional filmmaking when I was invited in 2007 to the then-existent Idaho International Film Festival by programmer Bruce Fletcher, a colleague of mine from the San Francisco Bay Area. My "beat", so to speak, had long been international cinema with a focus on the Global South, so it was challenging, and intriguing, to embrace American independent filmmaking at the regional level, specifically Southern Idaho. I committed myself to balancing my international coverage with regional coverage.

It's not always been an easy alliance. Absent true opportunity, and an alarming lack of awareness regarding the importance of film education and film exhibition to temper the unbridled inflation of film production, I likewise recognized that the hazard of regional filmmaking is its complacency with local rewards and an inability to imagine past state lines to national and international platforms. Regional filmmaking that achieves a national or international audience is precisely what I consider an ideal, but I quickly learned that it was not every Idaho filmmaker's ideal.

Like attracts like, however, and in the years that I've been observing Idaho film culture, it's been my great fortune to befriend Idaho filmmakers who envision themselves interacting on the world stage. One such filmmaker has been Christian Lybrook, who I met during the inaugural edition of the Sun Valley Film Festival (SVFF) when the then-existent Idaho Film Office invited me to serve as media liaison to the fledgling festival. His short film Crawlspace (2011) was premiering in SVFF's local showcase and I was quite taken with it. I interviewed his talent and later discussed the film with him for an interview with Fandor timed to the release of his next short film The Seed (2013).

At the 2015 edition of SVFF, Lybrook won the inaugural One Potato Screenwriting Competition which awarded financial and creative assistance to a script in development. His film Carbon (2016) premiered a year later at SVFF and will now be seeing its Boise premiere as part of the Filmfort program "Idaho Elements", free to the public at 6:00PM on Wednesday, March 23, 2016, at the Owyhee.

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Michael Guillén: I understand that Carbon came from an experience you had of finding a photograph that reminded you of a girlfriend?

Christian Lybrook: In a former life, I wrote prose. I wrote fiction. I was working on a novel that was set during the Great Depression. I would often look for photographs of the era to help with context. That was easier than trying to read about it, right? I could just see it. I was flipping through this book of standard Depression-era photos and came upon a black-and-white photo from around 1935-1937. In this photo there was a family from the Dust Bowl gathered together in front of their old truck and in the foreground was a young woman who was looking directly into the camera.

I was completely caught off guard. "Oh my God, that's Aurora!" I thought. It was a moment where I didn't feel that it looked like Aurora; it was Aurora! I thought, "How is this possible? It doesn't make any sense." In my head I knew it couldn't be Aurora; but, everything about it convinced me it was her. That moment of my looking at that photo—my mixed reaction of disbelief and being confounded—stuck with me. But I didn't know what to do with it. I put it away in my head and it sat there. Every now and again, I would pick at it, figuring there was something there even if I didn't know what to do with it.

Every once in a while I would go looking for the photo again, but I couldn't find it. I had borrowed the book from a library, returned it, and then I couldn't find the book again. I asked the research and reference librarians and we searched but we couldn't find it. It was as if the photo had disappeared. I hunted for it over the space of a good 10 years.

In the meantime, I outlined what I thought the story of this photo might mean, but never to my satisfaction. I knew that I didn't want to tell the story of my relationship with Aurora, which felt more circumstantial and not part of the "real" story; but, I didn't know how to couch it in a way that made sense to me.

SVFF's Laura Melhaff had reached out and said, "Hey, we have this One Potato screenwriting competition, do you have a script?" By then, the story around this photograph had settled on the idea of what you would do if you found out you were not unique and not one of a kind? How far would you go to protect your sense of self? The One Potato competition allowed me to consider setting the story in Idaho, which gave it a focus that it hadn't had. I asked myself, "What are you interested in and drawn to about Idaho?" I thought about the Basque culture, their tradition of sheep ranching, and stunning locations, and it all came together into the story of Carbon.

Guillén: So it went directly from an idea that had been germinating in your mind into a script you could submit to this competition? It had not been a short story first?

Lybrook: It had not.

Guillén: And then you won the inaugural One Potato screenwriting contest?

Lybrook: I did! But what's ironic is that I had submitted two scripts. I submitted one called Calving Season that was about cattle rustlers. That script felt much tighter and more focused. By contrast, Carbon—which at the time I submitted to the contest was called Bruneau (after the Bruneau Sand Dunes, which served a larger metaphor in the original script)—was messy and complicated; I knew it would be hard to do. When SVFF announced that Carbon had won, I turned to my creative collaborator Gregory Bayne and said, "I think they read the wrong one!" Literally, I thought they had read the wrong one. People came up to me and offered congratulations and asked what Carbon was about? I was not prepared to talk about it at all.

Guillén: Were you given a hint why they preferred Carbon to Calving Season?

Lybrook: Laura might tell you something different, but I think she wanted to do something that was a little bit ambitious for the first year out of the gate; but, also doable. One of the reasons Calving Season made her a bit nervous was because there was a scene with a bull that had to be put down and she wasn't sure how we would pull something like that off. There were probably other reasons as well why Calving Season wasn't selected. I think she felt Carbon was ambitious, but doable, and she also liked that it had a touch of sci-fi, because she's a great fan of sci-fi. Carbon was a story that was Idaho-centric, with a Basque background, that used great scenic locations like the Bruneau Sand Dunes, but also familiar locations like a sheep ranch.

One element that figured prominently in the initial script that, unfortunately, got slowly edged out of the script as time went on was a traditional Basque walking stick called a makila. It has one small appearance in Carbon, though it figured much more prominently in earlier versions. The makila is a symbol of stability, but also it's a weapon. I worked with Meggan Laxalt Mackey, a local Basque scholar, who put together a team to help us create a replica of a makila. I wanted these details to be authentic and to ring true. It was fun to work with her and—though, again, these were details that didn't make it into the final script—they were Basque-centric. Another bit of Basque history in the film is the newspaper article at the end, which speaks of the bombing of Guernica. So although that Basque back story never really comes out in the final film, in my head the woman in the photo is someone who was there at the bombing of Guernica and who migrates to the U.S. afterwards, and ends up in Idaho with her husband running a Basque sheep ranch.

This Basque fantasy was what motivated me to write the story of Carbon. I was interested in telling an Idaho story that wasn't set on a ski mountain. I had to ask myself: "How do you make Idaho matter to the story?" The Basque back story was always important and had always interested me. The main character's name is Quinn Bolibar, which is a Basque name. Unfortunately, much of that was whittled out while shaping the script for an audience. The story was so complicated and elusive. We all knew that going into it, but once we were in the edit, one of the hardest things I had to do was to leave in the things that matter to give the audience enough information to keep them engaged and to have the story be meaningful. When I look back at Crawlspace and The Seed, it's a theme throughout, right? How much do you withhold and how much do you reveal?

Guillén: Which leads me to ask: I've noticed in watching your short films over the years that there is this common theme of something otherworldly, supernatural if you will, informing your narratives. You infer an invisible world and I'm intrigued by that thematic continuity. In Zero Point (2015) and Carbon, especially, I sense an added commitment to genre. Can you speak to that? Was your intent always to move towards genre?

Lybrook: Not at all. The prose I wrote was rooted in the real. I wrote a novel about a guy in Africa doing development work and getting caught up in all sorts of crazy stuff that leads to the death of a close family member for things that he did. There was nothing supernatural or fantastical about that story. The other novel set in the Depression era was about boys growing up in Indiana who idolize the boxer Joe Louis, so again nothing supernatural there. What film allowed me to do was to visually represent a world that maybe I couldn't do in prose, at least through my prose.

I was well into the edit on Carbon when I considered that—when I looked back at Crawlspace, The Seed, and to a certain extent Zero Point, but especially Carbon—those three pieces are a kind of triptych with characters who are isolated and lost, essentially in worlds of their own creation. Those surrealist, magical—whatever you want to call them—elements are things of their own making, metaphors for the bigger challenges these characters have to go through. Zero Point is rooted in near-future science fiction. My mantra all along has been: "If there are no original stories, how do you create original moments? How do you take something that's familiar and turn it 180º to make it something interesting, if not unique?"

Guillén: I'd say that's the industrial elasticity of genre and its accepted forms. It's the signature you imprint on genre, or the way you mash or meld genres together, that sculpt interesting forms and combinations. Genre is the emotional language of film in many ways. Certain emotions, certain ranges of emotion, are encapsulated in genre forms so—when you start mixing those up—that's when some really creative things start happening and the audience starts feeling the unexpected. A western is a western but add a little noir and it's a dark, existential western, or add aliens from outer space and you have a weird western. That's when—as you're saying—you can create original moments.

Lybrook: One of the filmmakers I love is Guillermo del Toro, especially his early work. The Devil's Backbone (2001) is incredible! Pan's Labyrinth (2006) is beautiful, but The Devil's Backbone is my favorite of his films, because it is an amalgam of forms. One of the elements that is most fascinating about Pan's Labyrinth is that it's historical; it's a period piece. Yet it's also a fantasy and magical realism and all these things wrapped together. Not to overstate things, but the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez is fascinating to me and I know I could never do that. I realized early, "Don't try to be Márquez. Be your own version of how you get at these characters and their worlds."

For Carbon, I was interested in the existential crisis a person would go through. We put so much value on even our lowest of lows; at least it's our own. We own it. It's unique and singular to us. Nobody's going through the same thing in the same way. It occurred to me watching shows like Orphan Black (where there's a clone) that—if you really encountered yourself—there would be some serious shit that would go down. I don't think it would be, "We're all friends and let's try to work this out." Suddenly you're at that line, just like Quinn says in Carbon: "If you are you then who am I?" That's the only thing we have at the end of the day: our own perception of our own identity.

The film has to stand on its own; but, people are always interested in the back story of it, so I usually tell the story about finding the photo. When I started the Kickstarter campaign, I knew I had to talk about the photo; but, it was gone! I couldn't find it. I was working with Travis Swartz and he said, "You need to find that photo." I said, "I know." We shot the Kickstarter video and talked about the photo, but still needed to find it. I spent days searching everywhere I'd already searched and then, finally, with the right combination of key words on Google Image Search, I saw it among a sea of images! There was a piece of me that was always afraid to find it again because, I thought, what if I find it and it's not her? The whole concept would be blown for me. I saw the image, clicked on it, it enlarged and the same feeling rippled through me: "This is her in 1935. How is that possible?"

Then there was a new problem, which was that I knew I was going to then show the photo and talk about this story and I needed to basically have Aurora's blessing. She lives in Boise, is married now but we're still friends, and I knew I couldn't do it without her blessing. I sent her a text on the Monday before the Wednesday launch of the Kickstarter: "Hey! Do you have time to get together tonight? There's something I want to show you."

We got together that afternoon. I didn't tell her anything about the photo. In fact, when I first found it I showed it to a mutual friend of ours. I didn't prep him and he turned the page and saw the photo and said, "What is this? Why is Aurora in this photo?" Which confirmed that I was not alone in thinking that. He asked, "Are you going to tell her?" I said, "NO! What would you do if someone handed you a photo of yourself from 80 years ago? You'd freak out, right?" So I had never told her. Fast forward to a couple of days before the launch of the Kickstarter where this story, her story, was going to come out, so I sat her down at Bar Gernika and I put my laptop in front of her. I had the image all queued up. She said, "What's going on?" I said, "Well, there's something I want you to see and I didn't want to spoil it. Go ahead and take a look at the image." In the meantime, I was filming the whole thing, which was kind of diabolical of me, but I also knew that this moment was important for me in terms of what her reaction would be.

When I saw how Aurora reacted, I knew that this idea I was exploring was a real one.

Guillén: What is it about identity that makes it such a fragile construct? Why aren't people more like Shirley McClaine? Welcoming previous lives, if not other concurrent lives?

Lybrook: What I wanted to explore wasn't so much about previous lives; but, what if you exist in multiple times or the same time? Would we each feel unique about each one of our selves? We each create our own sense of value, place and reason that no one else can take away no matter what we go through in life. Even my pain is my pain. There's the core question of why we are here? What are we doing? Why do we strive for anything? We're all just going to die anyway, right? But yet there's this thing that drives us forward because we can each make an individual unique contribution, even if it's small and minute.

Guillén: Etymologically, "unique" comes from the 16th century Middle French, which in turn stems from Latin unicus, which means "only, single, sole, alone of its kind," from unus "one". In essence, it means "forming the only one of its kind" and only later in the mid-19th century was extended to give a sense, however erroneously, of "remarkable, uncommon." It appears to be hardwired in the human animal to subjectively own the unique experience in order to feel distinct and, as you say, to have any purpose or motivation whatsoever.

Lybrook: Which goes back to Descartes proposing, "I think, therefore I am", with an emphasis on the I.

Guillén: One thing I much admired in Carbon is its concision. When I first watched it, I was presuming it was going to time more like your previous shorts and was surprised by its brevity, and yet impressed with how it relayed complex concepts so powerfully. My question would be: in editing, how do you create that sense of timing? How do you time the beats to serve such a swift communication of a difficult idea?

Lybrook: The place I start is that there's the story I write, the story I shoot, and the story I edit. And it always changes. But the goal was always to get it under 15 minutes. Crawlspace and The Seed were both over 20 minutes. I had always wanted to get them under 15 minutes, but I just wasn't able to do it. That was my fault as a storyteller and editor on those particular films. With Carbon, the first cut came in at 22 minutes. Gregory Bayne actually did the first five edits and then I finally got to a point where I said, "Greg, I could tell you, 'Please move this here, put that there', or I can just get in, tear it apart, and put it back together."

Guillén: Was the goal to get it under 15 minutes a requirement of the One Potato competition?

Lybrook: The competition required the script to be under 15 pages with the idea that the finished film would be under 15 minutes. There was nothing that said it had to be that other than my own preference to tell a concise story.

Guillén: It's my understanding a written page equals a filmed minute?

Lybrook: Yeah. The edit was incredibly difficult. I was super insecure about it because the story was so complicated and elusive, yet I wanted to tell it within a certain amount of time. There was a lot that we stripped out. It's funny how the process is so circular. It took me a long time to circle back to my original question of what happens when you discover that you're not one of a kind and how do you protect your sense of self? Somewhere in the middle, I got lost in wanting to also explore stories about Basque sheepherding and delving into the character Jake's back story, where he came from and his goals and ambitions. How did Guernica tie into this? I felt like I had to explain it all. I held onto all of that for a long time. Usually my process is we start with a rough cut, which I know is going to be too long, then I cut it way back to something I know has enough information and then I slowly layer details back in.

There were a lot of people I asked to watch it along the way to make sure the story made sense. If there's not enough information for the audience, then I've lost. It goes back to how much do you withhold and how much do you reveal? I went back to some of the material in the original script that I had taken out and shot it after the principal photography was already done. A lot of that were the clues: the map, the list of others, the photos, all those things that helped pull the story together. Editing is a puzzle. It's a process of how to get the right pieces into the right places to make it all fit together so that it does create a cohesive whole. Aristotle's advice was to start your story as close to the end as possible. You learn these things and then you try to implement them in whatever story or film you're working on.

Guillén: You did a great job.

Lybrook: Thank you.

Guillén: I likewise appreciated that Carbon was rooted in naturalism. I favor supernatural stories that are grounded in naturalism. That's what makes a supernatural or uncanny concept seem real. Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby was one of the first stories where I really noticed the effectiveness of that. Levin made that apartment in New York seem so real and from there he could incite terror and instill dread.

Lybrook: It's totally helpful to have somebody you trust like Gregory Bayne, who truly is a fantastic editor; but, he couldn't get into my head. In a way, there was no way I could explain what I wanted. The editing was something I had to experience firsthand. But, after I was done, he took it and smoothed things out. Another thing I wanted to do with this project was to create a different sense of collaboration. Any film is a collaborative endeavor. In the past, I've worked with my friends Tom Hamilton and Chris Brock. We would work together on the writing, but I was the one who would really do the editing. They would come in and say, "What about this or this?" and, in that way, we would collaborate on the editing. But with Carbon, I wanted to do something different from the get-go.

Once I had the script to a certain place, Matt Wade—one of the camera operators on Carbon, and a filmmaker, artist, illustrator, animator in his own right—agreed to do concept artwork. The same with Patrick Benolkin, who did the score and was willing to do concept music just off the script. As I was rewriting the script, I was looking at Matt's artwork and listening to Pat's concept score and both started to infuse the story, the shot list, and how we would visually tell it. These collaborations opened up things that I just wouldn't have seen otherwise. The other thing was that we shot Carbon in 2:35. We had a filter that made it look anamorphic. I wanted to replicate the old westerns.

Guillén: Your locations had a lot to do with effecting that. Can you speak to why the Bruneau Sand Dunes were so important to telling this story?

 Lybrook: In what we shot, Quinn talks about the sand dunes and the million grains of sand and how individually they're nothing but collectively they create something that stands against time. She says that to the "Vermont Quinn"—the one who shows up with a gun—as a way of saying, "If we join together...." There is the question, however, of how reliable she is in terms of telling the story.

Guillén: I love unreliable narrators. They're intriguing!

Lybrook: I asked myself, "Why are you going to shoot this at Bruneau? It can't be just because Bruneau looks cool." It goes back to the title of the film. There's always the idea of "carbon copy" but what was more interesting to me was carbon as the building blocks of life.

Guillén: Your "we are carbon" t-shirts was a brilliant marketing move.

Lybrook: Even on the t-shirt, it was important that it was a collective idea. We are carbon. I wanted people to feel empowered. From that aspect, Bruneau became a very important metaphor.

Guillén: Can you speak to the experience of your successful Sun Valley Film Festival premiere? I understand you couldn't hear a pin drop during the screening, the audience was so transfixed.

Lybrook: Absolutely. As you know, Crawlspace played at the first Sun Valley Film Festival. Up until that point in time, I felt I was only making videos in my effort to learn. I made a lot of mistakes and some pretty shitty videos. But I always knew that I had a good sense for story and character. Crawlspace was the first time that technology caught up with what I had in my head. It's wholly imperfect but I have a huge soft spot in my heart for Crawlspace. At the time it felt like it was going to be the last one. Everybody was busy with our own lives. Tom had just gotten married. Chris was in a serious relationship. We just wanted to go all out on Crawlspace and see where it would take us.

I remember meeting with Dana Plasse. I had sent her a DVD of Crawlspace. We had submitted to festivals but I didn't really know what I was doing. She said, "I'm going to be in Boise. Let's get together for coffee." We chatted about how we had built all the crawlspace scenes in Tom's garage. He and his wife had just bought a brand-new car literally the week before we started shooting Crawlspace. Tom's wife, who is a lovely person, said, "But you're just going to be in the garage for the weekend, right?" We were in there for three weeks. We brought in dirt for the crawlspace floor and totally took over the garage. We upped everything, the production value, everything. When it played at Sun Valley, I remember being in the filmmaker lounge where people would ask me, "What are you doing here? What's your role at the festival?" Sheepishly—because I felt like a total fraud—I'd say, "I have a short film that's playing." I remember someone saying, "Oh, you're a filmmaker?!" And I was, like, hesistantly, "Yes..... Sure. Let's say that." It took me a long time to feel that was a true statement. It probably wasn't until Zero Point got some legs under it with the Independent Filmmaking Project (IFP) in New York and going there and meeting lots of other people and realizing that everybody's making it up.

Guillén: Which runs parallel to the theme of Carbon. At 62, I can assert from life experience that we can be many different people at once. We can be a filmmaker, an archaeologist, a cook, a lover, a thief, whatever, all at the same time. It's a fallacy of identity to presume that when you use a noun—which are problematic anyways—that you're locked into an identity. Identity is more in the action, in the fact that you are a filmmaker because you are making film, at the same time that you're working for health services and at the same time that you're drinking beer with buddies. I do understand your initial hesitation to identify as a filmmaker, however, because—as you know—I have interviewed hundreds and hundreds of filmmakers and it is a hazardous noun fraught with peril, especially when people become over-identified and inflated with the noun, which invariably leads to their demise. Others are committed to the practice and the craft, they keep doing the work, and they're the ones who I see survive, because the focus is on the act of making film, and often not even on the finished film itself.

Lybrook: You nailed it. It is the difference between the noun and the verb. It comes back to that standard question, "What do you do?" What do I do? Well, here are all the things that I do. But what that question really means is, "How do you make a living? How do you pay your bills?" Which, in most cases, is the least interesting thing about a person.

Guillén: Truthfully, because we live in a culture where we're not allowed to earn a living doing what we really love.

Carbon | Trailer from Christian Lybrook on Vimeo.