Filmed like a lucid dream, it begins with a man apparently at death’s door, surrounded by half a dozen police officers in a tiny bedroom, before it crosses paths with hypnotists, deadly librarians and fathers addicted to rocks; all within the confines of a 1960s aesthetic.
Before the festival opens, we sat down with Precarious’ director to discuss his film, his childhood love of adventure novels and what it’s like to make a film when you don’t have a crew.
You originally planned to be an animator. Why the move to ‘live action’?
“Studying animation in school was exciting because it felt like anything was possible, the only limit was one’s imagination. But once I graduated, the stark reality of working for a large studio as a guy with some insignificant job – like painting the toes of a dinosaur character – felt crushing. I was also getting more excited about live action movies that kept an animation sensibility to them. Terry Gilliam, [Jean-Pierre] Jeunet, and Tim Burton were my gateway filmmakers back then. They sure weren’t easy filmmakers to emulate, but I had to try.”
Precarious has been an idea that’s been brewing in you for the last twenty years since film school. Tell us about the genesis of the idea.
“As a little kid, I read quite a few young adult adventure novels, mostly Hardy Boys and the Three Investigators, but also the lesser known ones like the Rick Brandt and Ken Holt series. Two things about them really lodged in my head. First, those stories are all about the mechanics – clues, traps, people racing from place to place, all very object-orientated – and that was very satisfying visually. It was all very concrete. And second, the world of the 1960s that they existed in was very realistic, but at the same time, had an otherness quality to it. They had this cool subdued fantasy to them without going wildly over the top with boy wizards or some strange creatures that spoke telepathically. Then many years later, after discovering more conceptual writers like Borges and Calvino, it blew my mind at what could be done merging all those ingredients together.”
When did it click for you that you could make Precarious a reality?
“I thought it was way too ambitious, so I kept putting it off. Then I finally realised that it was taking up way too much space in my mind and I had to just make it no matter what, just by myself with sock puppets and cardboard sets if necessary, to get it out of my head. So, the movie started abruptly one Saturday morning without any prep and with no script in place, just notebooks of ideas that had piled up over the years. I sketched a floor plan of the first set, bought some wood, then started hammering 2x4s together in my living room.”
Considering the amount of attention to detail in your scenes, a lot of people will be surprised to read that your sets were built in your loft apartment. Was the decision to do this out of necessity or choice?
“Instead of adapting and compromising with what I could get access to in the real world, I decided to try sculpting it up from nothing. Only what needs to be seen would get built. It’d all be paper thin, and nothing would exist outside of what the camera sees. Essentially, a life size stop motion animation set. And as I was building, I was able to live in these places and refine what the scene should be, where the camera should go, how best to light it, decide whether to submerge a buried mansion underwater or not… It’s incredibly satisfying to wake up in the morning, have a cup of coffee, and already be in that world.”
The practicality of everything in the film even runs through the opening credits. How long did it take you to settle on the stylistic choices you made?
“I met this amazing woman, Louise Franco, while rock climbing. When she heard what I was starting to build, she was skeptical at first, but offered to help art direct it if I bought her a nice dinner every night she worked on it. It all went from there. While I was focused on the structural builds, she gave it the style it has. Props, furnishings, costumes, makeup, colour in all aspects… she ended up nailing it single handedly. And that included designing that opening credit sequence that tries to show how almost all of it is handmade and crafted rather than bought off the shelf. We would have long conversations figuring out how far we could push it, like whether a treehouse made out of paper mache would ever work being built inside. Louise never said no, so we’d just go for it.”
Is there anything in the film, a certain scene, that you’re particularly proud of?
“Probably the scene in the quarry where the hypnotists return is my favourite. To shift to the backstage of a smoky cabaret without a word being spoken and it still feeling just right in the moment made me extremely happy.”
You mentioned that there was a lot of literature that influenced the film, so how do you see the relationship between the written word and the moving image dovetail, outside of the obvious screenplay?
“There was a thought that stayed with me while we were filming – what is the story that’s happening in the centre of a dimly lit snow globe? That question doesn’t mean much literally, but it was a reminder for me to not get stuck in the logical, but to try to keep looking deeper. And I’d like to think that’s the potential of prose in relation to film. Its loose interpretive nature can really set an interesting direction for images to head in. That being said, I don’t read nearly enough as I should these days.”
When you gathered your cast and crew together, how did you sell the film to them?
“There was no crew to convince. It was just me, Louise, and her son Scott doing sound. And it’s hard to believe in retrospect, but the four main actors – Andrey Pfening, Dash Hillman, Meriel Melendrez Mees and Juliana Frick – agreed to work on it part time over just a year with no script at all, just a premise. It took much longer than that, but everyone was so happy with the shape it was taking and the care going into it that they stuck it out for the entire seven years without a single complaint. All of the actors came from very physical backgrounds – parkour, dance, circus – that made them a true joy to work with in how they enjoyed shaping precise performances. And then in post, I was incredibly lucky to be put in touch with Ben Eshbach (of the Sugarplastic fame) who liked what we were doing enough to agree to compose a perfect symphonic score for it.”
What for you is the core theme of the film? What do you hope audiences will take away from Precarious?
“It wasn’t really designed to make an audience feel a particular way. I’d hope that it’s a world that people might enjoy getting lost inside in the same way that Alice in Wonderland was a daydream Lewis Carroll entertained his niece with while floating down a river on an afternoon boat trip.”