“It’s Like a Drug Movie without the Drugs”: Director Xander Robin on Making his Body Horror Romance, Are We Not Cats
Are We Not Cats, Xander Robin’s nearly unclassifiable debut feature — let’s call it a mashup of downtrodden NYC romantic slacker drama and fantastic body horror — premiered at the 2016 Venice Film Festival, made the festival rounds and is now out on streaming platforms via Cleopatra Films. What makes it particularly worth a watch is Robin’s sure storytelling voice and ability to navigate multiple genres in a single picture. It’s also got a plot twist tied to an extraordinary fetish, one you haven’t seen onscreen before: trichophagia. For those of you to lazy to look that up, that’s eating hair.
The film follows Eli, played by up-and-comer Michael Patrick Nicholson, as he’s left homeless with only a moving truck and a desire to find a new beginning. When he meets Anya (Chelsea Lopez) at a shadowy and seductive underground rock club, he’s hooked. Fast forward a few hangouts and they’re consuming each other’s hair. As clear as it is that this bizarre act is, in fact, very dangerous, you root for the two — Are We Not Cats is a love story, and one anchored in the universal desire to connect with someone else who’s as “bizarre” and damaged as you are. The film is also shot with specificity and care by DP Matt Clegg, finding meaning in shadows and the seduction in back-lit scenes. During our lengthy chat with Robin, we talked restraints in budget and timeline, why he chose to make a feature right out of school, and how he communicates his vision on set.
Filmmaker: When tackling first features, there’s this issue of being “ready.” It’s about other people thinking you’re ready, but more importantly, your own feelings. At what point did you feel ready to make this?
Robin: I wanted to make it immediately after graduating [film] school [at Florida State University]. I had the idea for the movie and that I was going to move to New York, because I knew this movie had to take place in a really cold area. I was inspired by my experience in Baltimore, and a lot of it was just stories from my dad. When I graduated from school in Tallahassee, I felt like the king of Tallahassee, like I was going to make the next Lion King. And then I moved to New York and I obviously got the shit kicked out of me, figuratively. I’m sure my first year in New York I was probably the worst human being I’ve ever been. Not that I did bad things, but just I deserved to get slapped in the face a little bit. I wanted to make [Are We Not Cats], probably for $10,000. I was inspired by Medicine for Melancholy [and its director] Barry Jenkins. He went to FSU, he made a movie for the price of a used car, and it helped him.
Filmmaker: You never felt you needed to make more shorts out of college in order to to feel ready for the feature?
Robin: No, but now if I’d have gone back, I would try to make shorts. And then get into a really big festival, write a feature script based on the short, and get in meetings with every single production company and try to make it for $5 million. But I didn’t really want to do that, and at the time I thought my style made more sense over a long film, and that it could sustain itself. I felt it was being a little bit more ignored in short form.
Filmmaker: What do you feel your style is?
Robin: It’s not something I can express verbally, honestly. It sounds corny, but it’s something I feel really deep down. It’s about the details and this energy, and what I decide: what locations I pick, what actors, it all has to feel right and come from a deep place. When you combine those things into a short it might seem random, or that there isn’t much thought behind it, whereas I knew it could sustain itself over a longer film.
Filmmaker: How do you then, as a director, especially making your first feature, communicate what your style is to your team?
Robin:I’m also a technician. Matt might know the lighting equipment better than I do, and he really brings a lot to the table in the lighting department. When it comes to the lenses, distance from where the camera is to the actor, where the camera is placed, the action in the scene, I’m able to articulate the specifics of what is literally happening. I may have overthought this in some of my earlier [films], almost parodying myself in a way: keep repeating this camera motion because this is what makes my voice. But now, I’m starting to understand that I’m not going to overthink any of that and just go from an instinctive place. Every decision, as long as it’s my voice, it’s going to feel complete and consistent.
Filmmaker: Tell me about working with Matt, your DP.
Robin: Matt and I, we’ve lived together for maybe five, six years before, in four or five different apartments. We met in school and have a funny relationship. We argue a lot because cause he has his own agenda sometimes — he has things he wants to see. And sometimes I don’t exactly know how I want something to happen, or sometimes I have the specificity of “no, I dreamt it this way.” We’re checking each other, and I think the results are great. It’s worth all the bickering. We’re also really close friends. He works with a gaffer named Sean Gradwell, who’s amazing as well. Sean is also an artist in his own right, and you know, I’m so happy he came to the premiere in Venice.
Filmmaker: Gaffers are underrated.
Robin: Yeah, there’s a lot of artistry with the light, having it backlit. We were trying to make everything as dark as possible but still be able to see, especially exteriors. We were lucky, we got a lot of great cloud coverage during the movie. We used Danny April’s lighting package, who did Good Time. Danny April is Sean’s mentor.
Filmmaker: What did you guys shoot on?
Robin: We shot on a RED Dragon. Matt owns this set of lenses that he had bought a few months before. We were so happy we got them in time. They’re Leica R, like from the early ’80s, late seventies.
Filmmaker: Can I ask what the ballpark budget ended up being for the film?
Robin: There are cars you can buy for that price.
Filmmaker: Got it. So going into it, knowing you have such a small amount, what were you most worried about not having enough money for, and, in retrospect, what do you wish you had?
Robin: I wish we had more days to shoot. We had 16 with a full crew, and then some pickups. I wish we had more money for art. I wish we had money to hire a unifying production designer, a unifying casting director and more days for special effects makeup. The special effects makeup we did get honestly elevated the movie because they did such an amazing job for the budget. [The team] was Jeremy Selenfriend, Lisa Forst and Ashley Thomas. I think we had [them for] three or four days. It was really good. And also, I wish I could have paid my friends more.
Filmmaker: Yup, that’s the first thing!
Robin: Yeah, it’s hard. We all were like, “We actually can’t do it again.” [The film] was an out-of-scope idea, but there’s also something really cool about first movies which are out-of-scope. There’s this interview with [Good Time DP] Sean Price Williams [where he says] he likes working with first-time directors because they are always trying to bite off more than they can chew, and they don’t want to hear “no” for an answer. It’s beautiful in a way. I’m sure sometimes you end up spending too much time on something that people who are more experienced would know to just cut out of the movie.
Filmmaker: Limitations can often birth more creativity than not. Were there any specific things you can think back to?
Robin: We basically did all the pre-pro in six weeks. “January 1st, 2015: okay, today we start.” My friend Tatiana [Bears] came on as a production manager. We went and found locations and cast — we already had the lead cast. We sprinted the entire idea of the pre-production, so it kind’ve only afforded us a certain amount of options for everything. The idea was that if you see one thing that’s great, and it works, just do it. Don’t be like, well, let’s look at 20 different takes and then decide which one we like the most. If we were really excited about a location, we saw five in one day and picked one, then we kept going.
Filmmaker: Getting back in touch with being instinctual, as you were saying earlier. What are you like as a director with actors?
Robin:I hate my script. I say: “My script is horrible, let’s try to make it as good as possible. I hate all the words, but I want the meaning of the scene, so please use your own words, get the meaning of the scene. But if you love the line, let me know, cause then you can say the line that you love.”
Filmmaker: What’s nice about doing that from the get-go is that you’re giving your actors the safe space. They can feel like, “Okay, I don’t know who that writer is, they’re not here right now, it’s just us.”
Robin:I learned very early on, in making shorts, if it doesn’t feel right on set, it’s never really going to feel right in the edit. We’re always just trying to make it feel good on set and hopefully the footage is in sync with that.
Filmmaker: The tone is so specific in the film, and it feels like a new genre. How do you communicate that to actors, or do you not at all?
Robin:The only thing I guess I try to communicate with the actors is a realism. Every now and then there would be readings that would be more theatrical, or the actor is overthinking something, or thinking he’s saying something profound when he’s just supposed to be saying it. That’s the only time I talk about tone. Everything else is in the edit and just the combination of the location and sound, the way it’s shot.
Filmmaker: Your actors are very grounded and raw, even in these situations that could be considered horror, or a form of hyperrealism.
Robin: Hyperrealism? I like that word. Yeah, that’s something that I think I’m going for. To me, hyperrealism is like Gummo, Harmony Korine movies, Good Time, it’s so real it’s surreal, you know.
Filmmaker: Yes, the hyperbole of a situation. Are We Not Cats takes this very grounded, relatable desire to consume something, but it’s a hyperbole of that.
Robin: It’s an exaggeration of something that does exist. And because there is this exaggeration, hopefully you’re able to project your own vice onto that. It’s like a drug movie without the drugs. I hoped that it wouldn’t only be a movie for the 100,000 people in the world who pull their hair own and might maybe eat it. Hopefully it’s for more people than that. And if not, then you know, hopefully I’ll have more movies to make that have a wider audience.
Filmmaker:The film is grounded in your own truth and experiences — can you tell me a bit about that?
Robin:Going back to the first shorts that I really liked that I was making, all I wanted to do was write movies about the anxieties of romance. And in my own life, I was dealing with my own body anxieties, always related to hair, skin, and nails. I have a mild trichotillomania, like the character in the movie — actually a mild trichophagia, I eat the bulbs of the hair without even thinking about it. I have other things I don’t even want to talk about. It’s all in my adolescence mostly. And it was always great in my adolescence to go online and learn that other people share these same afflictions. I wanted to write a more positive romance movie with a little bit of a happy ending about someone who meets someone else who has the same affliction, but also have this horror romance which is like, what if a mild smoker met a chain smoker? How would that relationship manifest in a catastrophic way? I always feared or imagined things like this would happen. And it’s such an extreme image that I knew I could do for a low budget, and knew I couldn’t really screw it up because it’s something so personal to me.
Filmmaker: That’s very interesting: “I couldn’t screw it up because it’s so personal to me.” That should be a filmmaker mantra.
Robin: People always say, “Oh, this movie is just for myself.” I think a better thing to say is, “This movie is for my friends.” So I think, myself and my friends when we were 19 years old, what would be a cool movie? We were probably all into stuff that’s hard but also soft at the same time. Like, you know, Bjork.
Filmmaker: What’s the aftermath of the release been like as a first-time feature director?
Robin: I didn’t really understand the whole sales situation. We didn’t bring it to market in America until AFM in November, and our U.S. premiere, at Chicago, was awesome, but not as splashy. It took a little bit to get a sale. I’m happy though, there’s something fortuitous in waiting. This movie isn’t dated to any certain time period, so it’s not seen as this old news. If it’s the first time a reviewer looks at it, it’s like a new movie. The movies that are being referenced in the reviews are new, and I think it helps — Phantom Thread or Good Time. Very flattering. I mean, when I saw the ending of Phantom Thread, I thought, that’s what I was trying to do. Phantom Thread and Good Time were my favorite movies last year.
Filmmaker: So what’s next? I think we all have these notions: your movie comes out, and then all of a sudden people are knocking at your door.
Robin: I feel like it’s just a video game. You earn points, even doing this is giving me some points, and I’m just waiting to cash in all my points. When you die in a video game you have to go back to the beginning, so I want to make sure I don’t die, because I’d have to go back to the beginning and start again. I want to make sure the first time I show something to someone, it’ll be the first time I’ve ever lasted — with production companies, with a script I’ve had. I want to make sure when I send it them, it’ll be able to stand up for itself. But you know, even if you die, you learn how you messed up and you know exactly how to play the game again.