Jennifer Venditti, Billy The Kid
You might say that Jennifer Venditti is a people person. After starting out as a fashion stylist, she moved on to casting where she distinguished herself as someone with an eye for the unconventional as well as the beautiful. In 1998, she started JV8inc, a New York-based casting company working in fashion, commercials and film, which has become known for its use of street scouting, finding “real” people for campaigns or movies by going out and pounding the pavements. Since starting JV8, Venditti has worked for photographic luminaries such as Terry Richardson and the late Richard Avedon, as well as people like Bruce Weber and Spike Jonze, both of whom work across a variety of media.
It was while casting her friend Carter Smith’s short film, Bugcrush, that Venditti first met Billy Price, a teenager with behavioral problems, and realized that she wanted to make a film about him. Venditti’s resulting documentary is a remarkable portrait of a unique human being, a true original who isn’t understood by many of the people around him in his small town in rural Maine, but whose unmannered wisdom and innocence has totally won over audiences since the film’s debut at SXSW earlier this year. As well giving insight into how its protagonist ticks, Billy the Kid also has a compelling narrative, as the few days Venditti spent filming Billy coincided with his first, awkward brush with romance. Charming, moving and utterly involving, Venditti’s film showcases her singular talent for not only finding exceptional people but allowing them to reveal themselves completely on screen.
Filmmaker spoke to Venditti about her progression to documentary directing, working with Spike Jonze, and the problems of turning up late to see Margot at the Wedding.
Filmmaker: Your background is as a casting director. How long have you being doing that?
Venditti: I’ve been doing it about 10 years. I started in the fashion industry doing styling, and I was really interested in how clothes make a character and how people express themselves that way. I got really frustrated by that, but then my friend Carter Smith (who directed Bugcrush) started taking pictures and he wanted me to find people for him to photograph and brought me into that world. Then through that, people started calling me for commercials and advertisements and films.
Filmmaker: I believe you were casting Bugcrush for Carter when you first met Billy at a high school in Maine.
Venditti: I sat in the lunchroom everyday and started noticing how all these kids always sat at the same tables with the same people, so I started asking kids why they sat where they sat ,and whether they ever let anyone new sit there. These bullies said, “Yeah, we had this kid come sit here, but he freaked out.” I said, “Who is the kid?” They said, “He’s over there. His name’s Billy,” and Billy was sitting at a table all by himself. I walked over there, he opened his mouth and I was like, “My God, this kid is amazing! Why is the whole school not sitting at his table?” We just kept talking, and the first thing in my mind was, “How is this kid at this school? What’s wrong with him? What does he have?” I started talking to teachers and asking people things, and no one would really give me a [satisfactory] answer. All the kids were like, “Oh, he’s so weird. He’s dangerous, he freaks out,” because they torture him and he doesn’t just take it. He gets mad, he gets angry. And then the teachers would all say things like, “Oh, he’s really complicated, he has emotional disabilities.” I started to think, “No one’s going to tell me about what he has or what he is,” and I didn’t care anymore: I wanted to understand the world through his experience.
Filmmaker: You cast Billy in Bugcrush, but at what stage did you think about making a film about him?
Venditti: The whole time during Bugcrush I was in charge of taking care of him and I would take him to the set and home everyday, and we would listen to music on the radio and we would sing. I was filming and interviewing him because I did this all the time with all my castings. I had no idea that I was ever going to be a filmmaker, I was just obsessed with filming people. When I came home from [making Bugcrush], I was talking with a friend, saying “God, one day I really do need to make a film,” but not even thinking about Billy.
Filmmaker: Wasn’t the initial plan was to make a film about Billy and some other people, though?
Venditti: We discussed going on a road trip and doing this short about some people that I’d cast. We’d start with Billy in Maine, and then go to West Virginia to this interesting woman that I’d found there, and then come back and do a couple of people in New York City. I wasn’t even excited about Billy, I was excited about the woman in West Virginia. I had made a list of all this stuff I wanted to shoot with Billy, [saying] “OK, I’m going to be a director…” I threw that away after an hour of being there! I realized it was about creating a really safe environment and trust with [Billy and his family]. Billy has been the director of his own movie his whole life, and he sees his life through a cinematic lens, and I just wanted to create this space for him to be him and for us to just go on his journey with him. Then the whole Heather thing happened.
Filmmaker: It must have been amazing to watch that teenage love story between Billy and Heather unfolding in front of you.
Venditti: Every night we would go back to our place and watch the footage, and I remember going to bed that night and Donald [Cumming, the DP] saying, “You have something really special here.” I said, “I know! I’ve never seen first time love like that on film.” I remember the day we left, we were driving to West Virginia and I remember being really sad. I left that place crying, and it was this really bittersweet moment of thinking, “What is going to happen to him?” As we drove to West Virginia, I couldn’t stop thinking about everything he’d said. But when we got there, all these hillbillies came after us and wouldn’t let us film and we realized that the last videotape that Billy had said all his amazing things about love on, that tape was gone. The whole night we couldn’t sleep, and Donald was like, “Oh my God, I lost it!” We couldn’t call [Billy’s mother] Penny and see if we left it there because it was the middle of the night. Then that morning, we finally got a hold of her, and [she told us] it had fallen onto the driveway. We had not slept that night, and at that point I knew I had to make a film about this kid.
Filmmaker: Billy ended up going to a couple of festivals with the film. What was that like for him?
Venditti: Oh my God! Number one, he’d never been on a plane, and number two, he just hasn’t been around a lot of people, only people in his community. But he came to New York, because he had to film parts of Bugcrush [there]. On Myspace or Youtube, there’s footage of him in New York at a block party, and he’s on top of this banister. He started dancing and he took his shirt and and took his glasses off. He was with all the hipster kids dancing and you could see he was totally in his element. If Billy lived in New York, he would have a whole crew of people and be accepted, but he loves nature and it’s a little too overstimulating for him [in New York]. His senses are very acute and he loves animals and trees, and he loves that peaceful quality of life and fresh air. He kept saying when he was in New York, “God, the air is so bad!” But he loves the people and the spirit and the diversity and the acceptance of all the people in New York.
Filmmaker: There was quite a bit of buzz around the film after SXSW, but you ended up opting for a smaller distributor, Elephant Eye.
Venditti: We were approached by so many big distributors, people that don’t usually do documentaries. It was crazy, studios and distributors that I would have thought never would have been interested in a project like this. We got so hyped up in the beginning, it was like, “Wow!” In the end, nothing ever panned out with anyone, because everyone was so scared to touch it. It was that stock answer of, “We’re not sure how to market it,” and in the end I’m so happy. This film needs the kind of treatment where we’re handling the distribution: we’re so involved from the artwork to the trailer (A.J. [Schnack] from About A Son ended up cutting it). I’ve been doing events and speaking with people and connecting. I’m really glad that I’ve not only gotten to learn all aspects of getting a film out there, but be really involved.
Filmmaker: So often it seems like the people marketing a film and trying to find an audience have significantly less understanding of it than the filmmakers themselves.
Venditti: I know, and I’ve seen time after time these films that are coming out and they flop, and I’m just determined to show that you do not have to spend that amount of money and you can still get success. If not more, because who knows the film more than the people that made it and the people that run those companies usually don’t want to listen to them.
Filmmaker: This was such a special, serendipitous film, so are you daunted by the prospect of making a follow-up?
Venditti: I have to tell you, at many different festivals, people have come up to me and said, “God, how are you going to top that! I feel sorry for you.” [laughs] I don’t see it that way. This was one film and I definitely consider myself a filmmaker now and am so thankful for this experience because it really was the thing that tapped into everything I wanted to do. I’m starting to work on another film and I’m not looking for it to be another Billy the Kid. What I do next will be unique unto itself, probably not a documentary but a hybrid of non-fiction and fiction. I don’t see myself as a documentarian, I see myself as a storyteller, and I tell the story the way I think it should be told.
Filmmaker: Recently you’ve also been working with Spike Jonze on the casting of Where the Wild Things Are.
Venditti: Yeah, I like him a lot. He’s a huge fan of Billy the Kid too. I love how he sees the world in this magical way and is able to utilize that in storytelling. Whether it’s music, sets, casting, he’s just really inventive and isn’t held to a certain way of how things are [supposed to be done]. I think Karen O is doing the soundtrack for Where the Wild Things Are. When he saw the main character, [Max], from Where the Wild Things Are, he really wanted him to have an accent, because he didn’t want him to be just this angelic character, he wanted him to be more real and flawed in a way. So we were looking for kids in Jersey, Brooklyn and Philly, and we went all over because he wanted the kid to have that edge to him. I like that he sees things in that way. I like flaws, I feel like that’s part of what makes each of us interesting.
Filmmaker: What were you at school: the smart kid, the class clown or the dunce?
Venditti: I am going to say the dunce, because I wasn’t the smart kid and I wasn’t the class clown. I was totally hated school and my only way of rebelling way to say, “Fuck you, people, I’m not doing it!” So I didn’t do well in school. It was my way showing that I would not conform to the way they wanted me to learn and the things they wanted me to do. I was a rebel!
Filmmaker: Do you always try and get into the theater early enough to watch the previews?
Venditti: I’m either there just in time at the beginning, or I get there late and get pissed. I got to Margot at the Wedding right when Jennifer Jason Leigh and Nicole Kidman were just seeing each other at the house. I was pissed by the end because I didn’t see the very beginning so I had to wait until the beginning [of the next show to see it]. I had to fucking see the beginning at the end! I would hate someone if that did that to my movie! [laughs]
Filmmaker: Finally, what’s your best piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Venditti: There’s a few. Do not look to outside sources to validate your film. Be very, very clear on what your idea is, but be open to hearing other things. And don’t give up. Ever.