Todd Rohal, The Guatemalian Handshake
Todd Rohal is possibly the Mumblecore director you’ve heard least about, maybe because his films don’t fit with the movement’s improvisational, talky style or focus on twentysomething relationships. A native of Columbus, Ohio, he studied film at Ohio University, where his first short film, Single Spaced (1997), was nominated for a Student Academy Award. He made two subsequent shorts in college, Slug 660 (1998) and Knuckleface Jones (1999), and resisted the lure of Hollywood after graduating, instead choosing to take a more unconventional road. He made his fourth short, Hillbilly Robot in 2001, and has since worked in DVD design, as a cinematographer and editor for TV and independent films, and also as an actor, most recently in fellow Mumblecore director Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007).
In 2006, Rohal was named one of Filmmaker‘s 25 New Faces of Independent Film on the strength of his debut feature, The Guatemalan Handshake, which had won Best Film at Slamdance earlier that year. The film is surreal and individualistic, one of the most original, uncategorizable visions in recent American cinema: a power outage leads to a string of strange events in a small Pennsylvania town involving characters called Turkeylegs, Mr Turnupseed and Ethel Firecracker, boy scouts stealing cars, exploding dogs and a demolition derby. Ebullient yet poignant, The Guatemalan Handshake is beautifully shot and has echoes of the work of David Gordon Green and David Lynch – though Rohal describes it as an attempt to “place Kentucky Fried Movie in the middle of Days of Heaven.” The movie has an exclusive run at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center from June 8-14.
Filmmaker spoke to Rohal about having the legendary Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy) as his leading man, being part of the Mumblecore movement and his unique relationship with William “The Refrigerator” Perry.
Filmmaker: The film has incredible visuals, and looks like it cost quite a bit to make. How did you manage to achieve that on a small budget?
Rohal: The whole budget was probably $160,000, that’s for everything up to the print, so we really didn’t have much of anything. That’s a lot [of money] to ask for when the people you’re asking are your family and friends. Basically from the writing stage, we decided we were going to shoot 35mm anamorphic and I wanted to focus a lot of time on the sound, and make it full and big. We also had big set pieces, and we didn’t necessarily have connections to all those things yet, to the demolition derby and all that, but it seemed like it wouldn’t be hard. It was going into things being really naive and hoping people would be kind enough to do it for us for free. If I would have worked on a bunch of other sets, I would have thought there’s no way I could do this, but we didn’t have any trouble. There was no trouble getting the crew together to work for free either. It just took a little explaining as to why, where the intentions were coming from, and why we wanted the money to go to the camera, the film processing and that stuff.
Filmmaker: Did the cast work for free as well?
Rohal: Yeah. We cast locally, around Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Part of it was we couldn’t fly a lot of people in to work on it, and we couldn’t pay for housing for them, so we cast people locally. Also it was to have these discoveries of brand new people; if we had names, it would cheapen it, it would take away the strangeness of the film. It would take away that kind of confusion where you’re just really thrown into a whole new place, and that’s what I wanted to do. It felt like the right thing to do that way.
Filmmaker: Tell me about your relationship with Will Oldham. Though he did Old Joy recently, he hardly ever acts. It was quite a coup for you to get him.
Rohal: It was, yeah, though no one on our crew knew who he was! The lighting guys knew who he was, but none of the producers had ever heard of him. I remember when he wrote and said he’d do it, everyone was like, “Who?” I wrote a lot of the script while listening to his stuff. I worked on a DVD for a short film he did the soundtrack for, so I had a little bit of contact with him through that. Basically, I just wrote to him and said, “Would you be willing to be in a background role in this film?” I thought it would be kinda funny, but he read the script and asked to do something a little more substantial. I didn’t write the role for him. I had no idea who was going to play the role, or what he was going to look like, but he fit right into it.
Filmmaker: In interviews, he’s infamous for being very evasive in his answers. Was he easy to work with, or did that side of his personality come out?
Rohal: He showed up literally like an hour before his first scene, but he was certainly 100% into what was going on. I had full confidence in him that he wasn’t going to try anything strange or be evasive, it was certainly like he was taking it very seriously and he wanted to do the best job he could. He fit right in with everyone else, he linked up with the other actors. I remember a lot of the other actors didn’t know who he was, so I’d come round the corner and see one guy giving him tips on how to get his music out: “You’re a musician too? Well, there’s this guy I know who runs a music store in town…” I don’t think that hurts his feelings, I think that’s nice.
Filmmaker: Music is very much an omnipresent feature in the film.
Rohal: I was listening to music constantly when I was writing. With Will’s music, I would listen to every single album in a row. I was always trying to find good stuff on LimeWire, so I was constantly looking up weird things and thinking, “How can I involve this?” It was good to have music that I knew I could have access to to attach to the script, and write for that, and know when I was shooting what the music would be like. So I kept an iPod list of tracks for the film, or burned CDs to give to people to be like, “This is what I’m thinking musically.” Then once the film was done, I found this Tuvan throat singing music, and that was all found through LimeWire late at night. And then David Wingo came on and did the score for the film.
Filmmaker: David’s been doing live shows for you, hasn’t he?
Rohal: He’s playing at Schuba’s [on June 13], he played in Seattle and Birmingham, Alabama, and we had a show here in Brooklyn last summer. Kimya Dawson [of the Moldy Peaches] also played with the film. They’re two great musicians to have with the tour.
Filmmaker: How has being part of the so-called Mumblecore movement affected you?
Rohal: It’s a strange group to be a part in, because Andrew Bujalski’s films are vastly different. There’s not a lot of dialogue in my films. I mean there is, but not like these guys are doing, where it’s all improvised. All my stuff is definitely thought out. We knew what shots there were going to be and there was an ability to keep things loose, but not in the sense where we roll the camera and let things happen. It’s not about relationships, and one of the things I wanted to do in the film was avoid making a movie about my generation and making a statement about anyone my age. I think [I’m part of this group] because I acted in Joe [Swanberg]’s film, and they hadn’t seen my film, they’d heard of it. Somebody in L.A. came to see The Guatemalan Handshake, and they were like, “I thought this was going to be like Andrew Bujalski’s film, and then it opens up and it’s widescreen anamorphic film.” Right in the first two minutes, they said, “There’s no logic to whatever that Mumblecore thing is.”
Filmmaker: The film won Slamdance last year, but it didn’t seem to be the catalyst you might have hoped for.
Rohal: I knew that the film would be a tough sell for anyone to see. There was never a thought that it would be distributed and put out in a million theaters, but it needed that legitimacy of Sundance taking it, saying, “This is a different kind of movie, and we’re going to show it.” I felt it fit all the categories they always talk about, what Sundance is about, and it had been recommended by Cory McAbee, who did The American Astronaut, and David Gordon Green. I’d heard that it was going through the route, that people had seen it, but we just never got a call. We played Slamdance that year, and two programmers from Sundance came up and said, “We really love your film. It was up on the board until the last day.” After the Sundance thing didn’t come through, I said, “This is going to be a long journey…” It’s definitely been a struggle.
Filmmaker: You’ve taken the film on the road to a number of different cities, and this week there’s an exclusive run in Chicago. On the press release I was sent, John Hughes and William “The Refrigerator” Perry “personally invite” invite audiences to the screenings.
Rohal: William “The Refrigerator” Perry played for the Chicago Bears, and I want him to moderate the Q&A. But I think he lives in Florida now. I just completely make up stuff. We’re in Chicago, so it’s like, “Who are the two most famous people in Chicago filmwise? John Hughes and…?” I couldn’t think of anybody. Macaulay Culkin is repetitive with John Hughes, so… William “The Refrigerator” Perry. I should definitely get in touch with him, because I’m sure he would do it. It would be amazing.
Filmmaker: It’s great that you make an event out of screenings, like having David Wingo plays shows at the same time.
Rohal: The original idea that I wanted to do was go to lots of cities in a row and just travel with it, and then have the band go with us, and find different people in town and bring them in and have this whole vaudeville kind of thing. But it was just really hard to deal with theaters without a distributor, so we couldn’t plan that tour. But I like that idea of doing that, and it would be awesome.
Filmmaker: What phrase best describes your philosophy on life?
Rohal: Is it multiple choice? No? OK, “Do it to it.” That’s what we always said on set. One of the actors kept on saying that, he was kinda nuts. He was this guy from Queens that we cast, the really loud, obnoxious guy. I guess it’s like “Get ‘er done,” but in Queens.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you burst out laughing on set?
Rohal: There’s a scene where one of the characters, Stool, is in the car with a milkshake, and there’s a take that we couldn’t use because I burst out laughing. He had half the milkshake, and put it between his legs to take his shirt off. I was listening on headphones, and just heard this cracking of Styrofoam and then basically I just knew the milkshake had been released into his crotch. That’s when the actor blamed me for making movies just for those moments, because I guess that was the happiest he’d seen me in a long time! I couldn’t stop laughing. I was accused of not even having film in the camera and just doing this to humiliate people.
Filmmaker: Finally, what’s your biggest extravagance?
Rohal: Calamari. If it’s on the menu, I prefer it to a regular meal. I feel rich when I’m eating it.