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“It Certainly Doesn’t Hurt to Make Films For This Little Money”: Ricky D’Ambrose on Notes on an Appearance

Bingham Bryant in Notes on an Appearance

Writing about Ricky D’Ambrose for last year’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film, Vadim Rizov described the script of his debut feature, Notes on an Appearance, then in postproduction, as “giv[ing] a sense of a disciplined, honed gaze refined over years of self-tutoring.” 

That autodidact’s precision manifests, in shorts like Six Cents in the Pocket (2015) and Spiral Jetty (2015), in straight-on close-ups of people against blank white walls or monochromatic wallpaper, or of pictures and texts and cups of coffee on tables as the sun streams through the window, and an almost monastic sound mix of epistolary voiceover and the distant hum of the city. It also aligns, in Notes on an Appearance, with the guarded deliberateness of David (For the Plasma [2014] codirector Bingham Bryant) as he departs his parents’ upper-middle-class Chappaqua and moves to Brooklyn, aspiring to join NYC intellectual circles (though his money will come from tutoring, not fellowships, at least for now). He moves in with his friend Todd (Keith Poulson), who is at work on a biography of one Steven Taubes, a controversial theorist in the ’80s Campus Culture Wars vein, whose problematic legacy is gotten across by inserts of mocked-up little magazine articles with Taubes’s name pasted in place of Paul De Man’s or Heidegger’s. David finds work archiving Taubes’s papers and videos, and the film itself is built like an archive: framing-filling maps in lieu of wide establishing shots; letters and postcards and diary entries; videos, both shot on vacation in the 1990s by D’Ambrose’s father, and sourced from the internet. This assemblage seems almost like a pitch deck or test footage for a future version of the film, but becomes a haunting trail of clues for Todd and Madeline (Tallie Medel) when, mid-movie, David simply up and walks out of the narrative.

D’Ambrose works with a cast of New York microindie filmmakers and personalities, parallel to the academic but non-tenure-track he invokes on-screen. Yet thanks to drawn-out, soulful performances from Poulson and Medel, the film creates a sudden absence and severance in a forbiddingly “future-oriented” milieu (to use the filmmaker’s phrase). D’Ambrose and I spoke earlier this year.

Filmmaker: A broad question which will get us into more specific things about form and content: Would you, could you, make movies differently? You’ve talked in the past about your style being a kind of problem-solving, but surely there are other cost-effective ways to cover a scene, right? Going forward, do you think this is what your films will look like, or would they look different if you had more money? How would they be different? These are a lot of questions.

D’Ambrose: Well, I’ll say that, beginning with the movie I made in 2011 called The Stranger, which is a 30-minute film, there were already certain, let’s say, aesthetic interests that manifest themselves in the earlier shorts, that recurred. And I don’t know if that’s only because of the limitations that were put on the movies by the fact that I didn’t have much to spend and I was shooting them myself and they were all shot in a couple of [days]. But it’s interesting to me that from The Stranger to Notes on an Appearance, there’s a pattern that plays out. It’s almost as if each film becomes a way of distilling some of the things that I did in the one that immediately preceded it. Is that a matter of me refining certain techniques, because I’m drawn to certain ways of framing images, or is it because I had less and less money for each film? I think it’s the first; the amount of money I had for the shorts stayed fairly consistent from The Stranger to Spiral Jetty. I did have some money, more than I’ve ever had before, to shoot Notes on an Appearance, it was shot for just over $20,000—

Filmmaker: Did most of that go to crew and actors?

D’Ambrose: Four of the actors are SAG, and working with SAG actors required a payroll company to process their biweekly paychecks—and the payroll company required quite a bit of money on top of the actors’ flat rate. And working with a cinematographer for the first time, which felt like a great luxury, but also was an expense that I never had to think about before this film.

But to answer your question, it certainly doesn’t hurt to make films for this little money, while at the same time having a set of stylistic interests that do not require much more money than I’m able to spend. Where those stylistic interests come from, that’s a whole other discussion about film viewing habits over the years, but I think some of the influences are very apparent in the movie. It’s very fortuitous that those two things align. If I were trying to make different types of movies, I think I’d be in a place where I’m trying to find financing; I’d still be waiting to get my first feature made.

Filmmaker: What was the impetus for working with a cinematographer this time? The shots are scaled similarly in terms of the setups that are required.

D’Ambrose: I think it’s an achievement that the film resembles the shorts. Working with a DP freed me to work with the actors, in the same way that working with a sound recordist for the first time freed me to focus on things that I didn’t have the privilege to tend to in the way that I did on this one. When you’re shooting a feature across eleven days, you want to minimize as much as possible the number of roles that you have to take on. It was difficult enough for me to have to schedule the film and to keep track of people’s wardrobe; I can’t imagine shooting the film myself and doing the mic’ing myself. I liked the idea of having someone who could suggest things that I maybe wouldn’t have thought of. And the fact that he had all of his own equipment, as many cinematographers do, and was able to light a scene well—most of these sunny-looking interiors were actually shot at night. That is something that I don’t have a talent for, is lighting rooms. My shorts were shot with daylight, there was no setting up of lights at all.

Filmmaker: How large was the crew?

D’Ambrose: At a given time, no more than six people, excluding me. There was the DP and his assistant, and we had an AD; sound recordist; Graham [Swon, the producer] was on set every day, and some days we had extra help from the DP’s girlfriend, who served as a kind of slate operator and so on.

Filmmaker: Had you ever had to schedule around—

D’Ambrose: Yes, but never an eleven-day shoot. It’s very stressful and frustrating to schedule. There’s so many moving pieces, and those pieces get changed. People suddenly say that they have to take a job and they have to go off—Bingham at the time was working as a publicist and he was able to take some time off from that; Tallie and Keith made themselves available but there was less room for them to move their schedules around. But shooting this movie in eleven days… I think Bingham has remarked before that this seemed like a very relaxed shoot. That was not my experience of it. I guess it could never be my experience of it because I was worrying about so many other things. But most of the actors, they’re waiting around, drinking coffee, talking to one another, reading, eating. They’re not involved in the twelve hours of anxiety that I had to undergo during the shoot. 

Mark Rappaport, when he was making his fictional stuff—I don’t know if you’ve seen The Scenic Route, before he made the documentaries that made his name—he’d be shooting movies in his SoHo loft, doing everything himself. And that for a while seemed like the ideal way to go about doing it, except in this case I have a DP and a sound recordist. Something I’ve learned about shooting a movie this way where there is a small crew, as opposed to no crew for the shorts, is that there are more… temperaments you have to deal with; you have to be very diplomatic, there’s a lot of politicking involved. I don’t like shouting at people, I don’t lose my temper, but it requires a certain level of—what’s a polite way of putting it? I guess “diplomacy.” When you’re doing long days in the summer and there’s no air conditioning and you have lights on, people get tired, and when you get tired you get cranky, and when you get cranky you snap at people. 

Filmmaker: Are you working on any projects right now, scripts?

D’Ambrose: No, there are a couple ideas for movies that I now have, but the movie that I’d like to make next would cost much more money than this film.

Filmmaker: Is that something that you’re in a position to talk about?

D’Ambrose: I think it was in an interview with you for Brooklyn Magazine that I talked about this movie that I wanted to make, that would have pop songs always playing in different rooms. A movie about my parents’ marriage and divorce that would begin in ’87 with their wedding and end in 2005, 2006, around the time I went off to college. Part Tarkovsky’s Mirror, part Barry Lyndon, part The Long Day Closes—not something that would be a $20 million movie to make, but given the fact that there are specific songs that I’d want to use in it, songs that were playing in rooms growing up that I think are important to be in the movie, clearing the rights to those types of things would be very expensive.

Filmmaker: You’re already describing this project in terms of rooms and sounds, so it’s already seeming like the glimpses we get of David’s parents in Notes on an Appearance! Are you imagining staging it in terms of rooms and sounds, in this modular way, or…?

D’Ambrose: I think so—I mean, “rooms and sounds,” yes. Yes. I should have told Steve Macfarlane to make that the title of the series of shorts of mine that he [showed] at Spectacle: “Rooms and Sounds.” But not as modular. I mean, maybe? Put it this way: the idea for this movie is modular, because right now it’s so incomplete, I haven’t even made an attempt to start writing or outlining it.

Filmmaker: I want to think a little bit about how modularity is affecting or serving the content of the film in front of us. It was interesting that you used the word “distill.” Thinking about Notes on an Appearance—it’s people making a living from intellectual piecework, with art openings, bookstores, lots of sunny breakfasts, always jam on the table with coffee and people sitting down to breakfast while the sun is out. They have time to think, time to be young, semi-employed, skinny, poor—but not really poor—and the incredible focus to able to live with intellectual ideas and analog objects and not be distracted. In some ways this is a film that I recognize very much right now, being a freelancer and trying to string together assignments and preoccupations that I can make a living out of; this film is a distillation of all the parts of that that relate most cleanly and clearly to that life, without any of the noise, be it digital or socioeconomic. Being a distillation of moments out of that life, the film seems some kind of idealization of the life of the mind, and I don’t mean “idealization” in a pejorative way.

D’Ambrose: My answering that question is really me talking about the way this movie is edited. If I were to show the script to you, the shooting script, it wouldn’t be significantly different from the final film, but wouldn’t really give an account of just how elliptical—sorry to use these words—how fragmented, disjointed, how discontinuous, rooms or spaces are in the finished film. Something that became apparent during the editing is that the movie pivots on David and Todd’s relationship, much more than I expected. I thought that once David was removed from this that this would really become a movie about Todd, or Todd’s response to David’s disappearance, being an occasion to learn more about Todd, or learn about Taubes, or something. And when I was editing I ended up cutting about ten or fifteen minutes out of the film that included a second roommate. But at a certain point, that [other] relationship became more interesting to me, and the speed of the movie, the modularity of the movie, is a consequence of a decision to pare down the film so that there are fewer and fewer and fewer people in it, and moving quickly [snaps fingers] was a way to accomplish that.

To this idea of idealizing the life of the mind, and, I don’t know, selecting certain activities or rituals and amplifying them and repeating them, whether they’re cafe shots or, reading, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee… I knew the characters were going to be academics, they were going to be grad students. I don’t think of Todd and Karen and most of the characters as “intellectuals”—I can’t take them seriously as thinkers, I think of them as part of a milieu.

Filmmaker: I love the matter-of-fact way that Karen [played by Madeline James] says, “At your age you should be placing pieces in as many outlets as possible”—

D’Ambrose: It’s horrible. She’s awful.

Filmmaker: She is awful, and I want to talk more about that element of it too, but I also think about the scene where David’s reading Spinoza in the coffee shop and we’re hearing really dumb, really funny offscreen dialogue about dirtbag millennials that feels like an intrusion into both a different social milieu, and a film that has oriented itself, that has curated itself around analog objects among other things, in a way that feels interesting to me. What is your digital life like? In what ways is this film a response to your digital life?

D’Ambrose: Well for what it’s worth, the early drafts of this film included many scenes of close-ups of hands with smartphones. There was some of the stuff that makes up our day-to-day existence, that we’re all familiar with and that we use. Taking those things out of the movie, or the script, wasn’t to idolize or to romanticize—as some people have written, and questioned me about in Berlin—analog culture. I wasn’t thinking of a movie that was trying to celebrate some kind of alternative to “the way we live now,” it just became more interesting visually to show paper documents on screen. It’s a way of putting through information—through newspaper articles, that would have been clipped by graduate students who are doing archival work. I know you didn’t ask me this, but it touches on this: “Why don’t we see them on the phones, why don’t we ever see iPhones?” That assumes that I’m obligated to make some kind of documentary or pseudo-documentary portrait of contemporary life, and that’s not what this movie is. I was pretty surprised by how frequently people pointed this out to me, during Q&As, and even looking at some of the things that have already been written about the movie, [saying] that the movie excludes these things, that it excludes phones, and I wonder what in the movie, other than the age of the people, and where they live, and what they look like, sets up people to expect or anticipate some sort of generational critique. I’m grateful I didn’t end up calling the movie The Millennials, which was the original title.

Filmmaker: The panel discussion scene is dramatized all via bios and more-a-comment-than-a-questions, and at the art-opening scene we see descriptions of the artworks and none of the art itself, so there is no real… content.

D’Ambrose: There’s commentary.

Filmmaker: The article mockups you put onscreen: I know you gave at least a little bit of thought to who would be writing about Taubes in Harper’s and The New Yorker; I don’t know that there is an expectation of familiarity, that’s a very forceful and judgmental thing to say about it, so I’m not going to say that, but, we do know a little bit about n+1 and The New Inquiry [bylines mentioned in the bios at the panel sequence]. To a lesser, jokey extent, I thought there was a really good visual joke at the Q&A session where you frame all the questioners from over the shoulder so you can only see the tips of their nose and hear their voices, and then we hear Violet Lucca, [late of] the Film Comment podcast, and we’re like, “Oh, I’d know that voice anywhere!” I’m not trying to tell you that this film doesn’t have distance from its characters, but I guess the question that I wanted to ask is how you think it will play to people who’ve never heard of Triple Canopy and don’t know the difference between the NYRB and the LRB.

D’Ambrose: Oh, I know. Because in Berlin no one laughed. They don’t know what n+1 is, they don’t know what Triple Canopy is, they don’t know what The New Inquiry is, there was dead silence in the theater. Not that I expected those scenes to play for riotous laughter, but nonetheless I’m curious, still, how audiences in New York are going to respond to those scenes. I’ve been told, by English-language critics, that they find that scene very funny.

Filmmaker: The stop-start music and editing patterns are quite comic, so there is a nudge.

D’Ambrose: Some of the expressions on the panelists’ faces—[moderator]Dan Sullivan’s, the really sorry expression on his face is pretty funny, I think.

Filmmaker: Were you thinking at all about different audiences—not specifically for that sequence—who would have different impressions about the lifestyle, or diversity of lifestyles, we see in the film? Audiences that’re more or less at home with the references, that’re excited to see how [redacted supporting actor]’s raw sexual charisma translates to the screen…

D’Ambrose: The fact that you’re not even hearing the panelists is I think in itself a pretty clear open and closed case of… satire. Or my commenting in a very snide way about this type of ritual. I don’t think those specific references in each panelists’ biography, or writing, or career, the publication histories—I don’t think they’re that important. Certainly the fact that n+1 is repeated for all their publication histories, you don’t need to know what n+1 is or represents to be able to pick up on the repetition. I don’t think that the film as it exists now is as inaccessible as it would have been five drafts ago, for what it’s worth. The early drafts were much more infused with references to people, to movies, to books, and as I kept writing and kept thinking about what type of movie I wanted to make, and what type of movie I was making, I realized that this movie should be placeless, in a way timeless. To go back to something we were talking about earlier, putting an iPhone 7 or… I don’t know what the latest iPhone is, but as soon as you put a smartphone onscreen it’s already dating the movie.

Filmmaker: What is the process of your sound recording like? Do you sound-board (rather than storyboard)?

D’Ambrose: The shooting script had a line in which the sound of the scene was described, and the image was described, so shooting the film, there are expectations of what that scene will sound like. But most of the sounds that are in the film, apart from the dialog, are from sound libraries. Very little sound comes from our sound recordist. There’s an awful lot of traffic noise, but even the traffic noise that does appear in the film that we did record during the shoot is mixed with sounds of cars from sound libraries. One of the recurring sounds in the movie is a car speeding by the mic, and those types of things were found in the sound libraries—church bells and all that stuff.

Filmmaker: I’m curious as well about the use of locations. Places are paired with this ambient summer noise—traffic, children playing—and, to return to the idea of modularity, with the outdoor locations not necessarily corresponding to where they are on the map, places have sort of a notional relationship to [reality]. Which is quite interesting; do you treat locations as similar to sound, as components that you know ahead of time?

D’Ambrose: Elements I know ahead of time, yes. Now, this is touching on financial limitations, I knew I didn’t want to travel outside a one-mile radius from my apartment in Brooklyn, with the exception of Chappaqua where we did go to get a shot of David walking on the street. Because of the fact that for many years before I took a full-time job I was a frequent visitor of a limited number of cafes in my neighborhood, writing the script it just seemed like… there was no effort involved in trying to map out the neighborhood, the apartments, the cafes. This was a geography that was already in place when I wrote the script. And I didn’t have to spend much money to use these places. In terms of the locations not aligning, it wasn’t some intentional thing—then I’d have to be assuming that everyone who sees this movie knows that “that’s not Fort Greene,” even though the map says Fort Greene. Going back to the idea of why are there no iPhones, it simply wasn’t that important to me that these things are all… accurate.

Filmmaker: How are you building these spaces within the production process? Is it simply a matter of finding a space that will be the location for the scene you’ve written? Are there props in the movie?

D’Ambrose: In the writing, I was able to conceptualize the rooms, the apartments. And those rooms and apartments were, in my head at least, modeled after rooms I’d been in, friends’ apartments. By necessity, and I’m sorry to say this comes back to a question of necessity, we couldn’t go to Milan. I had no idea what a flat in Milan would look like—I’ve never been to Milan. But I could frame my bedroom in Brooklyn in such a way that isn’t so… characteristic of what a New York City apartment would look like. Todd’s apartment is, I think, three different rooms in three different apartments; framing the rooms, whether it’s in Milan or Brooklyn, with a 35 or a 30 millimeter lens throughout the shoot, is a way to play up not only a stylistic trope, a way of framing things that I find very attractive, but also a way of showing a space, or showing spaces in a way that allows me to fudge the facts, so to speak. Having lots of bare walls allows me to avoid some of the what I think of as clichés of showing a New York City apartment in which there are certain expectations—that people would dress their apartments in a certain way, that you would see couches and lamps that are recurring in every HBO movie that takes place in New York. The fact that the rooms are so nondescript from location to location also focuses the viewer’s attention on what I think is more important, on what’s going on in a given scene. It’s not really about adding local color to anything, for the sake of, I don’t know, playing up the time the characters live in. It would be terrible if I did what I originally thought, which is that there would be these establishing shots of Todd’s apartment in which you would see the types of books that they read piled up, or see copies of the London Review of Books—you do, granted, see a copy of Bookforum on a table—but during the shoot it became very important to eliminate all of this distracting, characterizing stuff that could have eventually have been interpreted as a satire or as though… I used to think I wanted to make a period movie about life in 2017, and if I had made that movie, maybe the framing of the spaces would look very different. 

But to get to the second part of this question, I think of the props as the inserts, really. The props that are given some proper context in a shot, that you see in a room, those—yes, there are coffee cups, yes, for what it’s worth, the shots of the tables what’s supposed to be the interior of a café was a table in my producer Graham’s apartment, and I went to Chinatown, to a restaurant supply store, and bought sugar packets and a sugar container and creamer and the diner cup and there it was. 

Someone in Berlin pointed out that he used to live in New York and the diner cup—it’s not even a diner cup, he referred to it as a diner cup, with the green circle, reminded him so much of going to diners in the ’80s in New York, and I have no association with that. I used to go to Soup and Burger when I was at NYU and those are the types of cups you get at a New York diner. If you were to look at the storyboard for this script, you would not see a cup that had a green ring, you would see a white ceramic coffee cup. I don’t mean to make it seem as though I had such a particular or specific or detailed idea of what each thing in the frame is supposed to look like and that that should evoke something specific—that wasn’t the case. It is restaurant cutlery, and that should be apparent, or else it would look like IKEA.

Filmmaker: Yeah, and IKEA stuff would be too recognizable, too sociologically revealing.

D’Ambrose: I’d worry that people would think this is obviously not done in a restaurant. 

Filmmaker: I did want to ask you about your monochromatic interludes.

D’Ambrose: The green screen?

Filmmaker: The green screen [between sequences], which has been a recurrent thing in your films, and which I did actually want to ask you about: what sort of considerations are going on when you’re saying, there should be this color field? It makes sense for the cleanliness of the film in general that this would be a device—but… picking that color?

D’Ambrose: Well, the color green–maybe not that exact shade of green, but in the credits for Spiral Jetty, it’s white type superimposed over green. That shade, what I used to like to do—this is kind of embarrassing, but I would take a screen shot of the title card for [Rohmer’s] The Green Ray, and with the eyedropper in PhotoShop, select that color and then there we are, we have the green. I just like that green, and there it is, and now it’s in my film. 

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