Director Zachary Oberzan on Your Brother. Remember?
One of the great joys of being a critic is the childlike sense of wonder that comes with being the first to discover something new (that, and as the esteemed music critic Lester Bangs once put it, getting free shit). I first met Zachary Oberzan after seeing his one-man show Rambo Solo, developed with Nature Theater of Oklahoma, in early 2009. (Yes, for the record the tickets were comp since I was reviewing for Theater Online.) At the time I wrote, “I have seen the theater future and its name is Rambo – or more accurately, one fearless thespian named Zachary Oberzan who’s got the right combination of mesmerizing lunacy and sheer cojones to guide an audience through the entire plot of First Blood in his Manhattan studio apartment then transport the journey to the live stage of Soho Rep.”
As it turns out, my “big discovery” was already an accomplished, Obie award-winning actor who’d been developing his artistry for a decade. Nevertheless, it was exciting to watch as Oberzan subsequently transitioned from theater to a feature film. His Flooding With Love For The Kid – First Blood adapted and shot by Oberzan in that studio apartment by himself playing all the characters for 96 bucks, started as a DVD sold after Rambo Solo shows, had its theatrical premiere run at Anthology Film Archives last year, and is currently knocking about the festival circuit. Now the tireless Oberzan has created yet another film/theater hybrid, which is running January 5th through 16th at Dixon Place as part of The Public Theater’s Under The Radar Festival. Your brother. Remember? incorporates scenes from Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Kickboxer, the cult flick Faces of Death, footage of he and his brother Gator acting out those films twenty years ago, and he and Gator remaking those home movies today. So when the opportunity arose to chat with Oberzan about this latest tour de force, I certainly couldn’t let the chance to discover something new pass me by. With any luck maybe I’d even get a free DVD.
FILMMAKER: What’s so beautiful to me about Your brother. Remember? is it shows the brotherly bonding that occurred through your and Gator’s mutual passion for these particular films. Kickboxer and Faces of Death are important touchstones that the two of you share. Though I never shot home movies growing up I remember connecting to my sister in a similar way via John Hughes’s films, Martha Coolidge’s Valley Girl, Alex Cox’s Repo Man and Sid and Nancy. Those films transcended the screen to become part of our everyday lives. Can you talk a little about this aspect?
OBERZAN: Having made a big Hollywood film, Flooding with Love for The Kid (albeit in my apartment for $96, but a big Hollywood film nonetheless,) I figured I’m a Hollywood star now and I should do what Hollywood does, which is to remake its own movies every 20 years or so. But I’m also very fascinated by Before-and-After photos. They are like time machines for me. I wanted to take the concept of the before-and-after photo and move it to the next logical step, the before-and-after film. So although Hollywood remakes its movies by updating the actors and music and locations and hairstyles and body fat ratios, I wanted to use as many of the original variables as possible, to see how they’ve changed, or not changed. It was the aging of 20 years in the faces, the bodies, the movements, the voices, the sets, the props–that’s what I was really interested in. So when I began this project, before I really knew what it was about, it was simply an experiment in Before-and-After photos.
The decision to go back to my childhood home and work with my brother opened up a whole other can of worms. Our family life hadn’t been too pleasant. Our relationship as kids hadn’t been too pleasant. In fact, we didn’t have much of a relationship. The relationship was primarily one of animosity, misunderstanding, and violence. The one oasis in all that chaos was our mutual love of movies. Love of films was the common ground we shared. And it was through this project that we rediscovered that common ground, and began to form a real familial relationship, for the first time in our lives. So the project had a very concrete purpose.
FILMMAKER: YbR is also quite bittersweet and contains fictional recreations, and even one very disturbing real-life sequence, concerning Gator’s own struggles with drugs and the law. As a memoirist I often wonder how turning one’s life into an art project affects that life. Does it distance as well as connect? In other words, does revisiting your past offer any clarity or closure? Or does it merely allow you to cast Gator in a role that you can somewhat control?
OBERZAN: The kind of work I’m interested in watching or creating has to teach me something about how to live my life. Or be absolutely mindless entertainment. Or preferably, both. So I cut to the chase and deal with source material that is of immediate relevance to me, the aspects of life that I am trying to come to terms with. And I attempt to work through these problems and present them in something of an allegorical form, to share these questions with the audience. So for me, it definitely connects. Filtering life through a fictional setting actually teaches me more about reality. My recent projects, Rambo Solo, Flooding with Love for The Kid, and Your brother. Remember? all weave back and forth between fiction and reality, the past and the present, and in doing so, help illuminate the future I am blindly stumbling into.
FILMMAKER: Your directorial debut Flooding With Love For The Kid, in which you adapted, shot and edited David Morrell’s First Blood in your Manhattan studio apartment by yourself playing all the characters for 96 bucks, is a DIY tour de force. Like JCVD and Dr. Francis Gross, John Rambo is another member of your childhood family. I think most kids dream of one day becoming the people they see onscreen. Fantasy is a healthy part of growing up. What did these characters teach you or offer that your own life may have lacked?
OBERZAN: Figuratively speaking, I lacked exploding arrows. Literally, too. Why does anyone like a particular story or a particular character? The ubiquitous human phenomenon of projection, and the sense of self-empowerment and solidarity that it brings. The characters we are attracted to are characters we relate to, that we want to see in ourselves, and we want to see ourselves in. So it doesn’t take a PhD in psychology to know why I, and a billion other 10-year-old boys, were drawn to Rambo. Of course, when reading the book, I was as equally drawn to Teasle, but that gets into father/son issues, and is for another interview. Anyway, from the dawn of time until the end of days humans will always do this. And we do it as adults, too. The two most influential people in my life are Rambo and Leonard Cohen. Leonard I discovered a little later, when my intellect was a little sharper. But let me stress, not that much sharper. Hero worship is basically the same human phenomenon, whether it is I pinning a Leonard Cohen quote up on my wall, or a 9-year-old girl pinning up a poster of Britney Spears. These things make us feel good and announce to all who see our pin-ups what we like. It’s ego gratification. The guy who thinks he is superior because his fandom is based around something more nuanced than his peers, Shakespeare instead of bowling, say, simply doesn’t realize the psychological process is the same. He may just have been born with a few more IQ points.
FILMMAKER: In the beginning of YbR there’s a line about how “out of manipulation grew the fun of being someone else.” Gator draws a parallel between his lying to acquire drugs and the actor’s ability to “manipulate” an audience into a state of suspended disbelief. While I completely disagree with his assessment (only bad actors “manipulate” the audience — i.e., wonder, “How can I get them to like me? To feel what I want them to feel?” — while great actors “manipulate” themselves into believing in their false reality) I understand the point he’s making. I think the key, though, is “the fun of being someone else,” be it a character or a law-breaking bad boy. As an actor your escapism occurs onstage while as an addict the escapism occurs during the drug trip. They’re both out-of-body experiences, though. Can you elaborate on this?
OBERZAN: Yes, the “art of manipulation” figures heavily in YbR, and honestly, I’m still trying to figure this out for myself. It might all boil down to semantics, but here’s what I can currently offer: In high school or college I used to pride myself, as an actor, that my performances were “real” or “sincere.” But then we have to define what “sincere” is. And then we have to define what the validity of that sincerity is. There are plenty of actors who are “sincere,” that is, they believe what they are doing and saying, because they have received positive reinforcement when doing so, but they don’t move me. And there are plenty of actors, who would be considered “bad” actors, who do move me, because they are being sincere as human beings, but not as characters. I’d much rather see a sincere human being than an actor believing he is being sincere. This of course gets you into a lot of trouble with many people and critics, especially at the New York Times, who believe good acting is only one thing. When I perform, I try to be a sincere human being. But sometimes my sincere notion is, “What is it to be insincere?” So if sometimes I am sincerely being insincere, what does that mean? Much of this also simply boils down to acting styles, and sadly, few people realize that Method acting is only one of many techniques. It is only one paintbrush. A good actor has many different paintbrushes, and many different paints. The work that actor creates is that much richer. Ultimately, when I perform, I want an experience that teaches me something about how to live life. Again, it’s a matter of semantics, and I don’t know if you’d call that experience escapism, or hyper-awareness. Maybe two sides of the same coin. The only thing I can say for certain is, don’t trust the New York Times.
FILMMAKER: I think theater and film each have their strengths and weaknesses. As an actor and filmmaker you go back and forth between the two. What do you find most challenging about each medium?
OBERZAN: The specific challenges of each are really only surface ones, regarding the technology and people you may have to depend on to see the project through. Those things change from theater to film. For example, if I’m just dealing with theater, I don’t have to worry about compression codecs, which confuse me. Then again, my theater pieces all have video in them, so I do have to worry about it. But anyway, this is what I mean by surface challenges. The real challenge though, that is common to both, is how the hell am I going to make life more livable?
When not working on screenplays Lauren Wissot is a freelance film and theater critic whose work can be regularly read at The House Next Door and Slant Magazine. She’s also an erotic memoirist with Random House sub-imprint Nexus Books who makes G-rated porn films. Please visit her blog beyondthegreendoor.blogspot.com to learn more.