“You Run the Risk of Becoming a Brand”: Co-Writer/Co-Producer/DP/Editor James N. Kienitz Wilkins and Co-Producer Paul Dallas on Berlinale 2019 “Fake Indie” The Plagiarists
Editor’s note: with The Plagiarists opening at Lincoln Center this Friday, we’re reposting Vadim Rizov’s interview with its creative team. Note that since the Berlinale premiere, it’s been confirmed that Peter Parlow is a fictitious person.
On one level, The Plagiarists is a two-part comedy about a ceaselessly fighting couple, the first half of which takes place in winter. Anna (Lucy Kaminsky) is a novelist, at least aspirationally—completion of her first novel is a ways off, so she pays the bills as a copy writer. Tyler (Eamon Monaghan) is a filmmaker, but doesn’t think he can call himself that—he’s written a script, but that’s not the same thing as actually having directed a feature, and meanwhile all he’s doing is, as they say, “creating content.” His latest contract is with Evian, which makes it especially regrettable that, after a weekend upstate visiting their friend Alison (Emily Davis), the couple’s car has broken down—Tyler needs to be back in the city tomorrow or he’ll miss a shoot day, potentially jeopardizing an expensive contract. Luckily (?) for them, in a parking lot they meet Clip (Michael “Clip” Payne), a middle-aged black man who turns out to also be a friend of Alison’s. He offers them a place to crash while they wait for the services of a cheap mechanic they know. When the mechanic turns out to be unavailable until tomorrow, a spare room is offered up, which makes the couple nervous. There’s, perhaps, something off about Clip, and if the obvious race/class divide causes an unease the liberal couple can’t bring themselves to articulate (“Get out…of the house,” jokes Tyler), there are other signs something’s off. (Who exactly is that adolescent white boy who won’t leave his room on the second floor?)
Settling in for the night, Anna makes dinner while Tyler frantically coordinates with a production associate over the phone. Walking around, he stumbles onto a cache of outdated analog equipment, including a Sony BVW-200, an old Betamax model. A gear geek, Tyler is stoked; Evian requries 6K RAW, and if he shot on this camera they would murder him. If he wanted to deliver something old, he jokes, they’d shoot 10K, then make it look antiquated in post. At this point, the film is starting to actively dismantle itself, because its square format and conspicuous video glare are definitely not those of a new camera. (Not by coincidence, The Plagiarists was itself shot with BVW-200s—one from 1986, another from 1992.) Later, Tyler will rant about how much he loves these old cameras and how he draws inspiration from Dogme 95 as opposed to new cameras which, with all their ease and options, are “like empty, hedonistic pop.” Still later (in the film’s second half, set during the following summer), Alison will ask whether “the whole lo-fi thing” wasn’t already done in the ’90s (“at Sundance”). Is The Plagiarists a film which is, itself, a form of stylistic plagiarism? Ultimately, the title comes explicitly into play. Clip delivers an extremely long monologue, underscored by incongruously soaring music, to Anna about his childhood that, she later discovers, isn’t his own, but recited, word-for-word, from another text (the revelation of where it comes from, exactly, is extremely funny). As Tyler and Anna revisit Alison in the film’s second half, this discovery raises questions far beyond “What’s up with that dude?” The film concludes with another monologue, this one in voiceover; the way it mirrors the presentation of the first monologue immediately calls its origins into question, and the very first title card confirms where it’s from. (Do not look down to check your phone as soon as the final shot cuts to black.)
On one level, The Plagiarists arises from one of the simplest impulses for making a film: to create something that resembles, in recognizable fashion, the day-to-day details and mundane concerns of one’s friends and peers. That the details in this case are extremely specific (the anxiety of the independent filmmaker who doesn’t actually want to “create content”) is both part of the point and a cause for concern; the self-reflexive aspects don’t feel cutesy but self-interrogatory, as if the film is questioning and undermining its own right to exist while proceeding forward nonetheless. On another level, the film is dead-on in its depiction of an endlessly fractious, mildly nightmarish couple and very funny, both explicitly and subtextually. The many generic music tracks scoring some scenes sound like exactly what they are: cues from Pond5, all duly credited at the end, a fine meta-joke about the current ubiquity of freely licensable generic music substituting for actual “popular music.” (Can fake be just as good as real?) Percolating constantly throughout are concerns about class and race, often expressed with a cringe-inducing lack of ability on the part of the speakers to really take responsibility for, or acknowledge, their assumptions; it’s a very “How we live, (n)ow” film. On yet another level, these assumptions are coming from somewhere; Tyler is exactly the kind of obnoxious guy who says things like “I assumed you’d read that series.” If people recycle ideas nicked from hastily read web essays as their own insights in casual conversation, what’s the intellectual currency of their thoughts? Are they fully thought through, or just assimilated and rehashed, conversational filler accruing unearned credit to the speaker? That’s not exactly an unfamiliar sight.
The director is Peter Parlow, but the dialogue and concerns are very consistent with the past work of co-writer/co-producer/DP/editor James N. Kienitz Wilkins, who, among other things, has spent more time than anyone worrying onscreen about DCPs—what they mean philosophically for “film” in the short Indefinite Pitch, and whether FedEx has lost the sole DCP of the protagonist’s film in the feature Common Carrier. I spoke with Wilkins and his co-producer (and sometime Filmmaker contributor Paul Dallas) about their film, which just premiered at this year’s Berlinale.
Filmmaker: Normally, doing an interview about a film, I’d be talking with the director. Maybe he’s just not available. But obviously, James, you’re credited as the editor and DP, and you’re the co-writer. There’s not a ton of names in the end credits, it’s clearly a small production. How was labor was divided over the course of the project?
Wilkins: Beyond the directorial figure, a crucial person who’s missing in this conversation is Robin Schavoir, a long-time collaborator with me and other people I work with. We made The Republic together, which came out a couple of years ago, and at this point have almost a permanent screenwriting relationship. So, more than any of the other credits that I have personally, the most important one is the co-writing credit. It was shot very, very close to the script. That was the intent from the beginning. And, from a technical perspective, how everybody related to the camera was written into the script.
Dallas: A lot of the discussions while we were starting to make the film, and all during it, were about the nature of collaboration in the filmmaking process. There’s a fair amount of lip service given to it by filmmakers after the fact, when they’ve completed projects. But the industry is, by nature, very hierarchical. I think in some ways, this film was an attempt to figure out a different, much more collaborative system in making a film from the ground up.
Filmmaker: What is this system of collaboration that you came up with?
Wilkins: As I make more work with other people, the Automatic Moving Co. entity, for me, is a production company, but it’s not a standard one, in the sense that we never have any money. So, it embodies more an idea or ideal of production. In this case, Robin and I decided to write a screenplay very fast. We wrote it incredibly quickly and revised it here and there, but the goal from the beginning, written into the script, was a movie that was as timely and responsible as possible, and something that could be made within about a year. We knew that every component, every facet of it, had to do with what was available to us. We both went in with this idea of almost an in-house mode, where you have people who specialize in certain things, like a crack team that can just do it. The idea of an in-house director—in this case, it’s not exactly that way, but it is really appealing, you know? I think it reduces the indie film value of the director as the author. It’s like, what if you’re just a functionary that executes a certain set of tasks, and then you go away?
Filmmaker: So what were the tasks? How would you delineate that?
Wilkins: I would say one task is fulfilling the need of the world for a director. Other tasks are very technical. I was operating the camera most of the time. There were two additional people to operate the camera here and there. We shot the summer scenes multi-camera. Since I was behind the lens most of the time, I was dealing with very specific things like eyelines and the formal relationship to the actors. You could argue that that’s a form of directing, but I feel like DPs are always walking that fine line, where they aren’t supposed to encroach upon the field of expertise of the director or a producer or whatever, but they often are making very crucial decisions, because they’re the only ones that are there seeing what’s happening. I couldn’t, for instance, relate to the text as easily as others on-set, because I was encumbered with this giant camera that had specific needs. At the same time, I wouldn’t go so far as to be like, “I identify with DPs.” In a lot of ways, for me, shooting is out of necessity, because I can see in my head what I want something to look like, and it’s easier to just do it. A lot of lines got really blurred, which was really, really helpful, because we frankly couldn’t afford to have the typical structure of delegation. I would add that Paul’s role was really crucial. At the moment, he’s engaging really traditionally as a producer in the distribution process. But he was deep in it with us. Maybe the term for that is creative producer or something.
Dallas: James and Robin had written this script. James sent it to me. I read it in one sitting and immediately knew it was something I wanted to do. There wasn’t any question. I had a prior relationship to James, primarily through writing, because even though James and I had gone to school together, we didn’t actually know each other until afterwards, when I started to discover his work as a journalist and critic and started writing about it. In fact, the first thing I wrote about his work was for Filmmaker Magazine. I think that probably planted the seeds in my mind of wanting to seek out different ways of making feature films. The writing emphasis that has taken a forefront in some of James’s work, and the unique writing of this screenplay, was really the thing that sealed the deal for me. As someone who loves a good screenplay, this was something that I hadn’t seen before. Someone referred to the film as a Trojan horse, which is how I saw it. There’s two films going on at the same time. The outer wrapping is this, as James used to say, fake indie—a funny, accessible comedy that’s recognizable, about middle-class 30somethings struggling with money and creativity, that are very recognizable from the white indie world. Within that is this other film that’s much more conceptual, and, for lack of a better word, an experimental film, that’s very engaged with a whole set of ideas about the time that we’re living in right now, our relationship to culture and how ideas of appropriation and authenticity are understood in a moment when intellectual property is a less certain thing in the world. So, it was clear to me that on the surface, the dialogue was incredibly smart and funny, but [the film was] also incredibly thought provoking. The way that the film unfolds in three very discrete acts, with each one doing something else cinematically and conceptually—I felt a real kinship with the ideas and how they were being grappled with, and the overall sense of murkiness that the film really dives into.
Wilkins: Pinning down what something is about and then making it is a really boring artistic proposition, and seems to me to be the opposite intent of art. I do think that’s what happens often when you enter into this commercial sphere—which I have, for better or for worse, not really entered into so much. So, I’ve kind of been able to do whatever I want, as long as I’m willing to take the licks for it and suffer financially. But if I wanted to actually start making money—it’s funny that this movie has the most commercial appeal, I would say, out of anything that I’ve put out there, collaboratively or otherwise. You run the risk of becoming a brand, and I think that you see that a lot in indie film. It’s not to disparage people, the ambition and the skills that they put into these movies. I basically don’t watch indie films at all, because I can’t stand them, because they just tend to be repetitions of these individualistic brands. You go, “All right, X filmmaker is playing at Tribeca this year and you know exactly what you’re going to get.” And if you’re on that boat, cool. If not, cool. It’s inconsequential either way. That sounds a little harsh, I suppose, but I don’t know how to wrestle with that. I think one runs the risk just of making more and more stuff and falling into that oneself, just because it’s hard to come up with “new stuff.”
Filmmaker: Well, I don’t know. James, I haven’t seen anything close to all of your work, but I’ve seen a good selection. You have a very strong voice and preoccupations that come back regularly, like being concerned about the technical mechanics of filmmaking, or your relationship to the camera and how that physically mediates what’s seen. These are things that come up quite a bit in different iterations. Do you worry about that?
Wilkins: It’s not that I worry about it, it’s more that I think about it. I find it very hard, and I know Robin does as well, to accept wholecloth, as one’s inheritance, the right to make movies, or art, or anything, and have it received by the world. So, yeah, we’re going to talk about privilege. I mean, I know that’s a hot topic these days. I think it runs at a lot of different sort of registers, not necessarily just being technically privileged. There’s a lot of presumptions. So, that’s definitely something I’ve been thinking about lately. What does it mean to have a specific type of set of obsessions that are then rewarded, in a way, for being repeated? But I think there’s a difference between voice and brand. It’s a very fine difference, and it’s harder and harder to distinguish in this culture that hammers the idea of becoming a brand as an economic smart move. I mean, Knausgård is a prime example. I haven’t read the My Struggle cycle, but I’ve read a number of his other books—the ones about his unborn daughter, the seasonal series that he wrote and a number of his articles. I think he’s a very important writer, but I also see the side of this saturation that’s occurred as well. He’s become a ripe figure for satire. The really funny thing is that the things that he’s most famous for now, the My Struggle series is, like, 20 years old. It took him an incredibly long time for it to get translated and actually become an international bestseller. As a man, he is light years ahead of the brand that we’re familiar with at this very moment.
Dallas: As you go along and the stakes get higher, people like what you do, hand you money and say, “Can you do something like that, but different?” How do you negotiate [that]? James and I talk about this a lot, not so much repeating yourself. One of the things that I loved about James’s work is the shape-shifting aspect of it. There may be themes and ideas that are explored, but it’s as if they’ve got a three-dimensional form and he’s rotating it and seeing a different perspective in each film. Some other filmmakers that we are familiar with have a set of recognizable themes, and the variations are actually quite minor. To me, these are not variations, but very different explorations of different perspectives on these obsessions and themes.
Filmmaker: I think the points you’re raising are obviously super-pertinent, and I want to redirect them a little. Within the film, there’s the generic level that you described earlier, of these people that are familiar character types from a certain kind of independent film, but then there’s the specificity of the characterization of the filmmaker, who is making commercials and he has to shoot 6K RAW to fulfill his Evian contract. This is really specific stuff that represents a kind of anxiety—which I think is often discussed between filmmakers roughly around the collective age of everybody on this phone line talking—about making money and branding. Some of this is obviously baked into the film itself. I’m wondering if you had any discussions about how specific you could get, and to what extent you’re kind of detailing a world that you’re familiar with, but that just isn’t seen in this level of detail on screen—maybe because people don’t want to talk about it, because it can get kind of gross?
Wilkins: I have always felt that with movies, beyond other art forms, you have this ability to capture or preserve a specific moment in time. I feel like no matter what, if you’re making a movie in your time, you’re going to be making some sort of representation of that time. So, then it’s a question of how much you want to call out—I guess, yeah, the gross aspects. I think there’s a lot of self-mythologizing that people engage in by ignoring that stuff, you know? Why do you want a 6K camera, if you can’t afford it, let’s say. Like, what is actually happening? To me, it’s a question of almost basic analysis, Socratic questioning or something. Not even necessarily critique, just like, “Well, why?” Some of the answers are probably pretty obvious: “I want to have a calling card, or I want to look good, or I don’t want to look bad, or I want to get hired.” I don’t even look down upon that stuff, because we all need to make money, but it’s when you start to get into these cycles of delusion, where [the reasoning is] ignored or you’re substituting and making excuses, frankly—that’s, to me, when it becomes funny. Maybe I just have a familiarity with observing that the filmmaking process up close—some of these decisions I’ve made, but that also a lot of peers have made—and the way that corporations really suck us in with the promise of these tools that are supposed to somehow make our careers or something.
Dallas: One of the things James and I often talk about, and one of the things I’ve loved about many of his short films, is this idea of what it means to address the moment that you live in, and how does art do that? I find myself so often disappointed when I look at younger filmmakers who are, let’s say, overly beholden to previous modes of filmmaking, and whose work, when they finally get into the position to make a feature film, reflects the ’80s or ’90s movies that they loved, and are this weird kind of nostalgic filmmaking, that doesn’t really say much about today or the world we live in but says a lot about their childhood. All of the references in the film [are contemporary]. The film that was made was, as James says, the script that was written. It was a beautiful process in that respect. There were a few moments in which we added tiny, surgical references to what was happening while we were making the film, to slightly turn that up a little bit more in terms of relating to what’s in the ether right now.
Wilkins: I have an anecdote that I think is about specificity, too. So, right now, due to a number of factors in my life, it’s easier for me to do this phone conversation sitting in my car, which is why you’re probably hearing cars and trucks going by. I’m parked. It happens to be the same car that Tyler and Anna used. It was easiest to use my car as their car, but that was also a very easy decision to make, because a car’s not always just a car. Cars get us around. But if you were to just look at them, what does it mean about these characters to have this type of car? It probably means the same thing as it does for me. What does it mean for James to have a Volkswagen Passat? It’s a car that’s really nice, but we bought it used. It’s a car that’s too expensive for me in terms of, it was a good deal when we bought it, but every time it breaks, it costs like $3,000 and it ruins my life for six months. And at the moment, after we get off this call, I have to change the tire because the tire’s flat. It’s really annoying. And so, I’m as stuck, stranded, in a way, as Tyler and Anna were in the film, in the beginning of the movie. This kind of interrelation with real life—it’s not symbolic, it’s actual, or something. Trying to be open to these little details, to me, is very inspirational. That’s the fuel. I’m much more interested in—and Robin is, as well—that kind of tapestry than any sort of broad thematic statement, which maybe comes out as a side effect.
Dallas: All of the limits of what we had in terms of resources were baked into the project from the beginning. In other words, it was not this model of, “Write a script, then go out into the world and try to find financing to make it a reality.” It was, “How do you conceive a project from the beginning that’s so tied into your own life that it has the limits and the means built into it?” This idea about being able to make the film within a year—that was the film, you know? It’s a document of that whole process. There were no compromises along the way. I mean, the only compromises were the fact that we’re broke and we made it for nothing, but we knew that.
Filmmaker: I don’t want to keep you too long from changing your tire. I have two more questions, if that’s okay. The first is about filming the monologue. Has Clip ever done something like that before? Could he look off camera and see the text if he needed to refresh his memory? As you watch it, obviously questions start to arise, but my immediate reaction was like, “This is really long and there’s no end in sight.”
Wilkins: Our intent was that, at a certain point, the monologue becomes transparent. We wanted to start by segueing naturally into him just saying stuff, and then you were like, “Oh shit, a monologue’s happening.” I’m glad you thought about that, because I think it’s impossible not to—in that four minute stretch, or however long it is, we were hoping to have a shift in how you receive it. He’s reading it from a teleprompter. He’s a performer, but he’s not an actor. He’s never done that before. He’s in George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic collective. He’s been in it, in the van, since he was 16 years old. So, there’s this crazy ease about him and his charisma; he’s been onstage since he was a child. But that kind of textual performance is a new thing for him, which I really liked. Maybe this harkens back to my short features, but I like seeing people dealing with words, trying to digest them.
Filmmaker: My other question is about the citations. By virtue of the mirroring structure of the monologues, you’re encouraged to start questioning where that second one is coming from as it goes along. Immediately after it ends, you have the citations right there on screen. I looked up that Guardian article afterwards. I mean, it’s pathetic. But it’s really important, I think, as a viewer that you start questioning it as it goes along. That title card does confirm something that you might be suspecting as a viewer, and it tells you right away, but you have to catch it, which seems risky attention span-wise. I guess you could’ve not shown your work, I suppose, and just told people afterwards.
Wilkins: On a very simple technical point, if there weren’t citations, then we would be the plagiarists, you know? We were hoping to tease what exactly plagiarism is. It’s a reminder that not all of it was penned by me and Robin.
Dallas: I think it’s acknowledging how we internalize all of this media that we are encountering minute by minute nowadays. All of us are very familiar with the way in which things are quoted and not attributed.
Wilkins: Issues of attribution aren’t a new beast to flog. We’ve been dealing with this a lot, and that’s all fine and good and I think it’s super relevant still, but the little twist that I’m particularly interested in across the board is not whether or not each of us, as humans in this time, are a lost muddle of references, but how do we assess it? The thing that makes movies powerful is that they don’t stop for you. A film studies major can analyze a movie frame by frame, but that’s their prerogative and most people don’t do that. It also doesn’t necessarily mean anything, because looking at a movie frame by frame is different than watching the cumulative effect of a movie. So, what does it mean to have a barrage of information that you only partially get? Even if you’re able to look it up, even if it’s cited at the end, it doesn’t necessarily mean what it means in the context of time, you know? That, to me, is the manipulative core of speech. You can’t press pause and say, “No, that’s bullshit.” So, a very vapid assessment of film versus literature can take on depth if you’re steamrolled by it. You could find yourself agreeing, and then the question of whether or not it’s plagiarized becomes a necessary parallel concern.