“We Live in an Attention Economy”: Eugene Kotlyarenko on A Wonderful Cloud
Within two minutes of talking to Eugene Kotlyarenko, separated in physical distance by about a mile, yet connected by phone via his marketing company’s office thousands of miles away in New York, we are discussing near-fatal car crashes and how a life-threatening experience can make a few seconds can feel like an eternity.
Kotlyarenko was shooting an Interpol music video recently (he starred as the “sleazy guy” in a behind-the-scenes of a porn shoot). On the way home, his car spun out on a cloverleaf freeway entrance. “I literally felt like I was stuck in a time vortex,” he says. When his car stopped, he found himself facing the wrong way in the middle of the freeway. “I made my way back to the freeway entrance, popped a three point turn, pulled off, and drove home on surface streets all the way across town at 25 miles an hour.”
I mention my own recent bicycle crash a few months ago, and how prior to the accident, people had at times warned me of all sorts of potential dangers, but that it took a few crazy life-altering events to even begin to understand that I’m not invincible — especially on the road, surrounded by strangers in powerful machines hurtling through space.
“You’re basically going 70 miles an hour next to a person you wouldn’t even trust to make you french fries,” he says, and we both laugh.
The wild conflation of personal drama with comedy perfectly captures the feel of Kotlyarenko’s sophomore feature film, A Wonderful Cloud. Premiering at SXSW this weekend, A Wonderful Cloud is a raw, funny, and emotional rom-com about exes. It stars Kotlayrenko and his real-life ex, veteran indie actress Kate Lyn Sheil (You’re Next, The Heart Machine). It’s improvised, but the chemistry between the two stars creates an infectious excitement that energized me for hours after it ended.
I’ve explained to Eugene via email prior to the interview that my usual column is about a filmmaker sharing his/her greatest challenge and best lesson on a particular work. But, the more we talk, the more apparent it becomes that the only real challenge Kotlyarenko has experienced with A Wonderful Cloud is finding a challenge to discuss. In the end, I find that Kotlyarenko’s philosophies on filmmaking — fast and free, funny and compelling, provocative and engaging — dictate his boundaries enough to avoid many of what he considers the common pitfalls of American independent filmmaking.
Filmmaker: I was admittedly very, very tired last night when I started watching your movie. I fall asleep all the time when I’m watching movies. It’s not a reflection of the quality of film necessarily, but I was really certain I was going to fall asleep during this one. So one thing that struck me is that as soon as I started watching A Wonderful Cloud, I felt energized. All of my sleepiness went away. You have this really infectious excitement and enthusiasm that comes across so well on screen and it just converted my whole mood.
Kotlyarenko: Damn, thank you! My goal is to make something that is engaging and entertaining, and that’s increasingly difficult to do especially if someone’s watching something on a computer. So that’s very nice to hear.
Filmmaker: I was actually watching on my computer. Maybe that’s terrible to say. But this is how people watch things sometimes now, you know?
Kotlyarenko: Oh i’m not criticizing you, I’m speaking to reality. Everyone watches on their computers now. It doesn’t matter how you’re watching, you have your phone next to you, it’s really easy to tune out at any moment and deal with your life. Managing life has turned into a 24-hour endeavor. It used to be like, “This is my life, and there’s a lot of downtime” but there is no downtime anymore. I think it’s really hard to find for a normal person to watch a movie and focus and get immersed into it. I think it’s a real challenge that filmmakers face. We live in an attention economy. You want to get people’s attention, and that’s really hard.
Filmmaker: Were you conscious of this while making the film?
Kotlyarenko: I guess you are conscious of it, especially in the writing and editing phase. You make sure it’s not boring. I like durational films. I see the value in seeing Sátántangó, and I liked it, but you have to be on point all the time. If I read a box and see “meditative” in the synopsis, I know that’s not something I want to see…I want to pack a movie with stuff.
If you bombard people with reasons to laugh or reasons to cry or reasons to groan or reasons to react, there’s all sorts of interpretive stuff that they can get into later or think about later. But, in the moment, you want them to be deep in it. To me, that’s the goal of good entertainment. The greatest movies, I think, do this. I’m not saying our movie does this, but my goal is engagement, full immersion, and not have that much time for contemplation while the images flicker on screen.
Filmmaker: I’m thinking now of what I think is a great film, and it’s similar: I have to make it through, I have to be compelled by it in some way, and it has to stick with me for some reason.
Kotlyarenko: There are all sorts of movies that use temporal limitations and attention-based limits to their advantage. Like horror movies, which often use one location, or the idea of dread in a way that’s really effective. So, you can have a scene that’s three minutes of waiting and it can be full of tension, but it’s all based on context. Recently I was watching a late ’60s movie with Rip Torn called Coming Apart. It’s a very conceptual movie where he’s set up a hidden camera, and these camera takes are like six or seven minutes, but there’s this inherent tension because he’s basically having sex with women during a lot of it, but they don’t know [they’re being filmed], but he knows, and so there are a lot of different layers to the performances. There are different permutations and different ways to maintain interest beyond hitting people with different scenarios.
In our movie there’s maybe only 12 or 15 sequences because we didn’t have a lot of time. Most movies are comprised of more things happening. But you calibrate based on your resources, and you make sure that what you communicate to your viewers is fun and reveals things about the characters and hopefully introduces new sort of dynamics, or dynamics that are fun. I’m not trying to harp on that word, but it’s important.
Filmmaker: Do you feel like a lot of filmmakers don’t see the importance of fun? I think for a lot of filmmakers, that’s not on their radar — at least not on-screen. You’re dealing with a comedy, and not everything is a comedy, and I think for some people fun is the last thing on their list.
Kotlyarenko: To me, the apex of a narrative or creative work, whether it’s a movie, or a book, or a play, is something that’s both dramatically emotional and also funny. If you look at Shakespeare, it can be very funny, but there’s also a lot of drama going on. One of the ways he’s able to get everybody to enjoy his stuff is through the humor. The uneducated could relate to puns or body humor or dirty witticisms, and then that’s peppered in with something that’s emotional or political.
One of the best movies of last year in my mind was Wolf of Wall Street, which was highly scathing and highly political on a certain level and also very comedic and absurdly transgressive in its comedy. I would consider that a comedy or even a black comedy. Movies that I watch many times like Boogie Nights or Citizen Kane, or Notorious — they’re funny. No one would look for them in the comedy section, but they’re funny as well as being emotional. So, fun is important. Maybe on a critical level it’s slightly discounted, like Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar, but he’s obviously the greatest filmmaker. His stuff is maybe discounted because, it was pretty fun, so it was frivolous? Oh, it makes a lot of money, so it’s frivolous?
Anyways, I don’t need to defend Alfred Hitchcock here but, it’s pretty clear to me. Paul Verhoeven is another person who is obviously a genius filmmaker who is committed to fun and doing wild things and being provocative and getting people’s attention and he really is masterful in his use of cinematic tools and character and story to do that. And he’s another person who’s wildly misunderstood and often discounted. All these things change, it’s always 15 years later people are like, ”Showgirls is a work of genius.” But people didn’t get it at the time.
Filmmaker: Robocop, for example. It’s still so funny today.
Kotlyarenko: Of course! Robocop and They Live are the most scathing and accurate critiques of Reagan America while it was happening. And both of them were considered B films — sci-fi films for kids who like violence or something. They were deeply attuned critiques of the predominant way of life at the time. But because they’re full of cool fun creative shit, it takes people a hot second to catch up.
Filmmaker: You use these adjectives like provocative and misunderstood, and your film…it’s clear you relate to this in your own work. I was expecting certain things from your film. I had heard there was a lot of semen, for example, so I was expecting a lot of debauchery. It wasn’t like that.
Kotlyarenko: Movies are very impactful. What ends up sticking with people is very interesting. I’ll re-watch a movie that I watched three or four years ago that really made an impact on me. People think Reservoir Dogs is a super violent movie because people think they see a guy’s ear get cut off. They don’t even see it, it happens off screen, but it makes such an impact on people that that’s what they remember.
I won’t be surprised if people take grotesque things away from A Wonderful Cloud because those things tend to have an impact, but I know the movie has more substance than that. Even though, those things are funny and real and everyone can relate to sex and bodily functions.
Filmmaker: What was difficult about making A Wonderful Cloud?
Kotlyarenko: On the one hand, making the movie was really easy. The timetable was really fast, and I think the faster you do something the easier it feels. You do it, and it’s done. But, we had very little budget, and Kate had a very short availability in LA between other shoots in different places, so we had 10 days with Kate. We knew we were gonna do an improvised movie about exes, and we had to figure out how to make that work. That was a challenge. But we had a great producer, Brande, who was really resourceful and really smart about how she made use of the things in front of us and got people involved who could give us locations and start organizing the schedule.
But, also to be an independent filmmaker or to make a movie with a small budget, we know we don’t have time to do something like go to the desert for a day. Originally in the script there was a beach scene where I run into my cousin who plays in a drum circle and we make Kate play in a drum circle or something stupid like that — that should probably never be in any movie, much less this one — but I was like, hey we don’t have time to go to the beach. Even though it seems simple, a company move to the beach is a whole day thing. So we basically had to keep everything on the East side where my apartment is and where Vish’s apartment [co-star Vishwam Velandy] is, and the nightclub is and the radio station are both there, too. You know, you learn enough to know a company move is a really big deal. You want to keep your locations as close to your headquarters as possible. You just have to be practical enough to work within those limitations to help mold what your story is. That’s not really an answer to your question.
Filmmaker: Well, it’s advice. And I feel like writer/directors sometimes get really caught up in something, you know? Like, “This MUST have a drum circle.” Must you really?
Kotlyarenko: (Laughs) Yeah for sure! Look, filmmaking is an artistic pursuit. Almost every movie I’ve thought of has started with a few images. You have these images in your head that haunt you and follow you around and you build the story around that. This film is basically based around 1) knowing what’s Kate’s timetable is, and 2) with that mind, me being like, “Oh yeah, I’ve always wanted to do this scene on July 4th where there’s this couple arguing that hate each other, and then all of a sudden their arguing is drowned out by the sound of fireworks and then the camera leaves them, like flies away from them in their stupid little argument and surveys all these fireworks, like this skyline other world of stuff happening, and then comes back to them and now they’re fucking – like FUCKING.” I just had this idea, and I knew, OK, this is the climax of the movie, or this is some important scene in the movie, and then you just build it from there.
If Brande or someone from the production team came back to me and said, “We don’t have the time or the money do to the fireworks argument sex scene,” I’d be like, “Yes, we do. We’re going to spend our entire budget and schedule on that.” So you do have to pick your battles and certain things are important — certain things are the nucleus. If the drum circle is the nucleus of your film then, by all means, go do it.
There are a lot of things we couldn’t do that I was attached to early on. But that’s why it’s a negotiation and that’s why film is good as a collaborative process. It keeps it from becoming recklessly self-indulgent. A movie should be self-indulgent, but this keeps it from being recklessly self-indulgent. I mean, you have to assume that people like your taste because the only reference point you have is your own taste, and you don’t want that to be shaken, but you also don’t want to be like, “We definitely need seven minutes of me actually jacking off.”
Filmmaker: So, you’re doing something right, and it happened to go well for you.
Kotlyarenko: I think so. I think working with your friends is a gift. Having an executive producer that gives you money and doesn’t bug you is a gift. Being able to work alongside the coolest smartest version of yourself is a gift.
Kate said we should do an improv movie, and at first I was like, “Fuck that.” But then I was like, Kate’s a really special person, or at least she makes me feel special, and I thought, well it would at least be nice for the camera to capture that. I would enjoy watching Kate and me hanging out, because we have this good chemistry and we make each other cooler smarter versions of each other — I think. I don’t know, maybe Kate is way cooler and smarter when she’s not around me (laughs).
It’s not that filmmaking isn’t hard, it’s just that you just figure it out. You negotiate it. If there’s really one thing that’s stopping something from working, you just throw it out. I spent four years making my first movie and I was just like, “Never again.” So part of my philosophy is maybe a reaction to that, but I don’t want to get into a quagmire ever again because you just lose it. You lose the essence of the thing.
The longer it takes, the more obstacles you run into, and you don’t want to lose the essence of the spark of the original thing. Because that’s what makes you excited about it and that’s what will translate to viewers.
Filmmaker: So you want to go quickly, you’re imposing these time limitations in some sense, and others are created for you like Kate’s schedule. But you also need to coordinate so many things for it all to come together.
Kotlyarenko: It’s collaborative, so you do need other people, and we had such a time crunch. We got the funding on June 8th and we had no script, no crew, no cast. It was just an idea with me and Kate saying we wanted to make a movie about exes. And we had to be done by July 8th because of Kate’s window.
Filmmaker: That’s pretty crazy.
Kotlyarenko: It is crazy! I made a “behind the scenes” packet recently and was reviewing all the details, and it’s crazy what we accomplished in that amount of time. Anything that is problematic is thrown out the window. We did something that is very difficult to fathom – coming up with a functional and entertaining movie that was written, cast, production was brought together, and it was shot in less than a month.
Filmmaker: What did the script look like? Was anything written?
Kotlyarenko: Every scene was on paper, and sort of what happens in it, and some of the lines and how we’re feeling. It was like a 30-page, unpoetic, inelegant short story. It was basically all there, and I made revisions with the team. You make the movie and it takes over your life and the lives of those around you, so you talk about it.
And the actors are great. Kate is great and she’s done this before. We have a rapport, and that’s not difficult for us to conjure. The other actors are witty and magnetic. When you’re witty, you can come up with the right stuff on the spot. We rehearsed everything two or three times and seized upon the things that felt interesting.
Filmmaker: What was the ballpark budget?
Kotlyarenko: More than $30,000 but less than $100,000. A few people got paid but mostly everything went to what you see on screen. During the production, mostly everybody worked for free. Almost everything we got was free — all the locations, the party houses, the extras showing up, all the actors were all free free free. Put the money into the equipment and food. It’s a real American independent movie. The main difference for me between real American independent movies of yesteryear versus those of today is that the ones I see today are just really boring and not cool.
Maybe the greatest challenge is escaping the pitfalls and the traps of low-budget improvisatory filmmaking. There are a lot of traps people fall into that have to do with self-indulgence, and performers that aren’t deserving of viewers’ attention. Normal people who like watching movies for fun don’t approach contemporary American independent films, because their impression is that those films are underwhelming and not entertaining. A Wonderful Cloud is an extremely personal statement, but it doesn’t sacrifice entertainment. Saying something personal should be deeply affecting of the viewer.
Filmmaker: It’s curious that you decided to do an improvised movie.
Kotlyarenko: I told Kate I didn’t want to do an improvised movie because I have too much respect for movies (laughs). But, you think about people who do it well, like Mike Leigh or John Cassavetes, and you think, why did this work? Mostly it’s because of the casting and the editing. You’re immersed in their world. Casting is key to dealing with the pitfalls that have befallen American low-budget improvised filmmaking.
Filmmaker: Do you think other filmmakers aren’t taking into account the audience — like, who watches this?
Kotlyarenko: Responsively speaking, all filmmakers on some level think about the effects of what they’re doing on the audience. I just think a lot of them are delusional. They think people will react a certain way, but they forget that before people can even react they have to trust you. Trust has to do with people understanding where you’re coming from. And understanding has to do with making someone feel good. People have to be involved. They have to feel something. Provocation is a powerful tool.