“THE CATECHISM CATACLYSM” DIRECTOR TODD ROHAL
For many people, making a film seems like an impossibility. However, for those who do get their first feature in the bag, there’s no guarantee that making a second will be any easier. Todd Rohal is a case in point. He attracted buzz for his debut, The Guatemalan Handshake, which won Best Film at Slamdance in 2006 and earned him a spot on Filmmaker’s 25 New Faces list that same year. However the success of Handshake, a beautiful and stunningly original cinematic vision which Rohal describes as a hybrid of Kentucky Fried Movie and Days of Heaven, did not directly lead to a follow-up feature. Rohal’s planned sophomore effort, Scoutmasters, was selected for the both Sundance Producers Labs and Screenwriters Labs and is currently in development at Big Beach (the production company behind Little Miss Sunshine), but will not go into production until next year.
The Catechism Cataclysm, Rohal’s actual second film, was born out of the creative frustration he felt after waiting so long to get back behind the camera. The story of Father Billy (Eastbound and Down‘s Steve Little), a priest who loses his Bible while on a canoeing trip with Robbie Shoemaker (Robert Longstreet), one of his sister’s old boyfriends from high school, it is a hilarious and surprising crowdpleaser which seems destined for midnight movie cult status.
In early January, Filmmaker chatted with Rohal about the remarkable (and remarkably quick) genesis of his comeback feature, and what it is like to be among friends at the Sundance Film Festival.
I had lunch with you in the summer of 2010, and at the time you had a number of projects in different stages of development – including Scoutmasters, which is set up at Big Beach – but I don’t think The Catechism Cataclysm was even being talked about then. How did this suddenly appear from nowhere and get made?
I moved down to Austin last year, and [on the way there] I started brewing up this idea. I came up with this dream cast, and I’d cast everybody as a priest. I was driving the truck, so I was by myself. Just me and the cat. I came up with this idea that 10 priests go on a canoe trip: it was Steve Little, David Zellner, Pat Healy, Robert Longstreet – every actor that I knew. I spent a year in Austin, went through a lot of shit, and then moved back. And on the trip back, I started thinking about it again as if it was made for $5000, which obviously scaled the actors way down.
I was told that Scoutmasters wasn’t going to happen this year, and it just broke my heart because I was so ready to make a movie – I’ve been so ready to make a movie for the past five years! Every summer, it’s been trying to get over that hump. Basically, I was at a breaking point where I said, “I can’t sit still anymore, I have to do something.” A friend hired me to digitize some tapes in the Rachel Ray building, and I wrote the script then. I could hear the audience members stomping their feet, and I was down there digitizing tapes 12 hours a day and just cranked out the script in a week. I wrote a whole outline for it, and then was asked, “Can you do a script?” I wanted people to take the freedom to do this thing with a little adventure about it, but then I wrote the script – and then we stuck to that exactly! [laughs] Which was funny! It was just like even me attempting to try to do something improvisational failed, but nobody wanted to do that. I don’t think anybody really wants to improvise anything.
So I had this outline and took it round to people, but nobody would put up for it. They would say, “This is a really funny idea, but we just can’t do it.” I was asking for a very little amount of money, but still nobody [said yes]. I was constantly getting nos, and I definitely felt like I was getting the reputation of being a filmmaker who made a film once, rather than a filmmaker who makes movies. Then I was on the phone to Robert Longstreet and I was just telling him about it, saying, “I don’t think this is going to happen either.” He just said, “Fuck it, somebody just needs to tell you yes.” And that’s how the film got made. He put in the first chunk of money and then right after that, the rest of the money just started coming. David Gordon Green said, “I’m not going to read the script, I don’t want to read the script – just go do it.” The other producer, Megan [Griffiths], is an old friend from school, Ohio University, and she had just filmed The Off Hours in a very similar way: she’d spent five years trying to get it off the ground and had always had different actors attached with different budgets sizes, but finally just went, “Fuck it, I’m going to make it,” and did it for like a tenth of the budget. Calvin Reeder was in the same way; he was going to make The Rambler but couldn’t get that going, so he made this other movie [The Oregonian] for like nothing.
And all three of those movies are at Sundance this year.
Rohal: Yeah, all of them are there, and I don’t think we’re the only ones with that story. I can’t remember exactly what Jeff Nichols’ story is, but I think he might be in a similar boat, I don’t think Take Shelter was at the top of his list of things to do. [The Catechism Cataclysm] came so quick, which is why when it was the furthest thing from my mind during the summer. I didn’t want to do something that wasn’t ambitious – that was the worry about these low budget things. I don’t want to film my friends sitting around talking about their relationships – I don’t even want to listen to that possibility. I was told that it was too hard to make the film for that budget, but as soon as Megan and Lacey [Leavitt] came on board, everything started clicking into place in Seattle. We put the entire thing together in two weeks, shot it in twelve days, had a cut a week after that.
So when did you start thinking about Sundance?
It was always the ultimate goal for the movie: to make something and have it at Sundance. That was what we set out to do and the only thing on our minds when we were making this thing was showing it in Park City, and then booking the Alamo and showing it in Austin. That was it. Since high school I’ve always read Filmmaker when they’d have the list of what was at Sundance that year and the interviews with people, and I remember meeting my first ever Sundance filmmaker was like meeting royalty. So for me it is a major accomplishment to have something playing there, but after that to know Jeff Nichols, the Zellners (who have a short there), and [Michael] Tully and Megan and Elgin James, also have films there. It’s knowing that there’s this group of you and it’s not just you that’s going there blindly – you’re showing up and there are these people you know that are making these movies who are there as well. It was a big motivator for getting this thing going, like “I want to be there too.” Another year or two years can’t go by, and then I’ll be there and everyone else will be like 15 years old with their movies and I’ll be like 85 years old in pain, walking round like, “I made it.”
So what was the timeframe between you starting shooting and sending your cut off to Sundance?
Rohal: Um, three weeks. [laughs] We were editing on set but, yeah, three weeks. Trevor [Groth] extended the deadline a little but for us, but when the application was sent in, we hadn’t shot it yet so some of the things in the synopsis we submitted are not in the movie because we didn’t shoot them! We finished literally to the deadline of getting it to FedEx – we ran to FedEx at 8:55 for the 9 o’clock deadline and dropped it off. It was raining outside, we went to Grand Central Station FedEx, we ran in the doors and the FedEx guy was waiting and starting to take the packages. It really felt like we were making something that was going to have this crazy life. Those three weeks were flying out to Seattle, making it, editing it like crazy – we hadn’t watched the whole cut that we sent to Trevor! He watched it before we did. I’d watched it in pieces, and we had to assemble it and put it on DVD, but I’d not seen it all [in order]. It was great, it was pretty exhilarating.
Three weeks must be a Sundance record.
I have a feeling it’s not. I don’t want to be thought of as someone who cranks movies out like that. But Alan [Canant], my editor, and I have both worked in reality TV as editors, so we’ve pulled all nighters for crap, some shitty Home & Garden show – maybe hundreds of thousands of people watch it, but who gives a fuck? So we thought, “Let’s do this for ourselves, let’s stay up all night and really, really work at this thing to achieve this thing.”
It just seems like you had a lot of momentum on this film.
Yeah, definitely. The years of not making something were there every day. I felt insanely happy, the happiest I’ve been in years on set. It was pushing me to do anything, anything – I was just so anxious, and I feel like that anxiousness just fuels those big things. It definitely erases a lot of the discouragement that you’d otherwise have.
What was your logline when you were pitching?
I didn’t really have one. I just said, “Steve Little is a priest who drops his Bible” – that for me was enough. Steve was somebody who was just in the right place as an actor, and a genuinely funny person who I could watch on screen non-stop who’s not being given those opportunities. It just felt like a no-brainer, like a little bit of money towards this thing would result in something good.
What are your hopes for Sundance?
I think the achievement is screening it, and that’s it. Robert Longstreet, who’s in it, is in four movies [at Sundance] this year. He was talking to Jeff Nichols before any of us knew if we were going to be going or not, and he said, “Man, that’s the dream: to be sitting on top of a mountain in the snow and just looking at each other and saying, We made these movies by scraping it together.” We’re certainly at a time when people aren’t throwing money at us, but if we can achieve that then that’s going to be a big step for us, and it is. Our thing is that anything beyond Sundance is free candy – we’ll take it. That would be amazing, but if we show the movie and it’s destroyed after that then we’d just say, “Yeah.”
You shouldn’t say things like that!
[laughs] It would make it much more legendary if the projection booth explodes. But making it to Sundance is an achievement, and I need to allow myself to acknowledge that. I’ve watched so many people go through that thing of “OK, just getting it done is enough. OK, now you have to get into good festivals. OK, now you’ve got to sell it. OK, now it’s got to do well at the box office. OK, now it’s got to lead to the next thing…” You’re never going to be happy. I’m 100% sure of the fact that this movie can play once – I’ll hope that it plays well, I’ll hope that it’ll be a good screening, but that’s it. I need to have that healthy perspective right now. So I’m not thinking beyond it.