“Our Crew was Three People”: Slow Machine’s Paul Felten, Joe DeNardo and Stephanie Hayes at Rotterdam 2020
Kudos to the author of the unusually compelling copy for Slow Machine in the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s catalogue. The elephantine program, encompassing more than 500 films whose wild assortment of lengths, genres and formats defies any attempt at meaningful categorization (its four main sections this year were split into 23 subsections) is filled with gems, but offers scant assistance in discovering those not already on one’s radar. It’s a frustrating contradiction: Rotterdam takes rightful pride in offering a platform to smaller films by less established but adventurous and vigorously creative artists, yet so often they get buried in a glut of choices.
On my first day, I happened to have a gap in my schedule that was a snug fit for Slow Machine’s 72-minute runtime and, intrigued by the catalogue description, gave it a try despite not recognizing any of the names other than Chloë Sevigny (who, it turned out, is in a single scene). What I found was a film that exemplifies the best qualities of a genuine indie: a spirited, intelligent, ambitious and more than a little reckless endeavor which transcends its extremely modest means through sheer invention.
The narrative is composed of vignette-like episodes featuring Stephanie, a struggling, sympathetic if somewhat caustic theater actress living in Brooklyn. In one scene, she wakes up from a drunken blackout in the supposed workplace (a bare apartment) of a supposed NYPD counterterrorism agent (an unkempt guy in a suit), with whom she begins a potential flirtation. In another, she goes into hiding at a musicians’ commune upstate where she doesn’t know anyone and for some reason speaks in a wonky Texan accent. Her accent is again different when she later exchanges career woes with a friend (Chloë Sevigny seemingly playing herself). Throughout, the characters talk without cease, discharging pages and pages of exquisitely scripted dialogue as they tell each other personal stories that, like the situations themselves, always teeter on the verge of plausibility. Seductively disorienting, this succession of improbable scenarios gradually crystallizes into a reflection on a specific creative milieu and a study of identity, propelled by a wild and mesmerizing central performance—kind of like a lo-fi, Brooklyn variant of Inland Empire.
The punk vitality that charges every frame of Slow Machine is a direct consequence of its DIY production model: the co-directors Paul Felten and Joe DeNardo, making their feature debut, are also the film’s scriptwriter and cinematographer, respectively; no money was paid for locations and the cast and crew, most of whom worked pro bono, was made up of friends; the shoot took place on sporadic weekends across such a long period, nobody remembers exactly how many days it took in total (“somewhere between two weeks and 18 days”). By the sound of it, much of the budget was eaten up by the choice to shoot on 16mm, a lovely bit of foolhardiness wholly in keeping with the romantic anachronism of the entire project.
It’s fortunate that Stephanie Hayes, who plays her namesake, accompanied the film to Rotterdam along with the directors. Given the production’s intimately collaborative dimension, it only felt right to have this interview as a group conversation.
Filmmaker: In the post-screening Q&A you mentioned the film took four years to make, and that its genesis goes back much further. Can you describe this lengthy process?
Felten: I had this story floating around in a vague way in my head: I wanted to have a member of the Brooklyn bohemian class come into contact with an unhinged representative of American geopolitical mischief—weirdly, inspired by John Le Carré, who actually does this quite a bit. It was a combination of that story vaguely knocking around and knowing that I wanted to make something with Joe and Stephanie, and that the form needed to be experimental in nature.
DeNardo: It wasn’t intended to be as long a process as it ended up being. Our plan was to use Kickstarter to raise as much of the funding as we could and then try to get grants for the rest. We basically had enough money to process the amount of film needed to edit into an application for these grants. And when the grants didn’t happen, we were like, “What do we do?”
Felten: There was a long fallow period where we didn’t know if we were ever going to get the rest of the film processed. It sat in Joe’s refrigerator.
Filmmaker: You had shot the whole film already?
DeNardo: It was not all shot. We had shot maybe like 10 days of scenes. Then, once we found funding through these producers that came on board, we were able to process and shoot more and finish.
Filmmaker: Since the main role was written specifically for Stephanie, did you develop the character together?
Hayes: Not directly. The character mirrors a lot of me and my life: I have worked with Richard Foreman in a performance piece that Paul saw, which is referred to in the film; I come from Sweden, I lived in Brooklyn, I have worked as a performer in New York… But many aspects of the character are also from Paul’s imagination.
Filmmaker: So you didn’t participate in the scriptwriting.
Hayes: No, I got a script and that was sort of that. Then, when we were shooting, there were moments when we would chat, a detail here or there changed, or we agreed on something that would maybe work better differently.
DeNardo: Paul was writing and since we were all friends—Stephanie was doing performances, I would videotape the performances, we would talk about them—I think it was just an evolution that happened naturally. As she said in the Q&A, “Make movies with your friends.” Which sounds really simplistic, but it is true. You attain this intimacy that you can’t necessarily create otherwise.
Filmmaker: Since you worked with 16mm, on a very limited budget, you must have shot stringently and planned rigorously, but that doesn’t come across in the film. The free-flowing dialogues, often captured in long takes, feel very naturalistic.
Felten: Everybody was playing a role written for them, so I feel like everybody really took ownership of their roles. We had time on set to rehearse, since we couldn’t turn the camera on until we were absolutely sure we would get something at least mildly usable. Because we were going to run out film. The actors all came to the set knowing their lines and really, really ready to work. We made all of our days. We didn’t go over, ever, because people knew what they were doing. I like to think that the environment we created, by virtue of being this very small, intimate space—both physically and sensibility-wise—made people comfortable.
DeNardo: And, dare I say, fun.
Hayes: It was very fun!
Felten: Yeah, we did actually want the movie to be fun to make because, y’know, we weren’t doing it for money… [Laughs]
Hayes: And I think it’s also a testament to Paul’s dialogue and writing. There’s something about it: it’s got muscle, which you need to chew through as an actor, and at the same time it rolls off your tongue. If you just do the work, you kind of know how to say the text. That’s not always the case when you get dialogue. Sometimes you have to give so much more to the lines to make them work, and I feel that Paul’s text works on your more than you work on the text.
DeNardo: It’s surprising how much it flows, given how articulate the people are.
Hayes: Exactly! There’s a lot of words, and a lot of chewing, but it still has a nice flow to it.
Filmmaker: You said the only major scene that was improvised is the one almost at the end, when Stephanie suddenly starts singing in Swedish, which is nice both conceptually and structurally, seeing as that’s when the character breaks down. Is that why you chose to improvise the scene?
DeNardo: It’s weird because that was one of the first things we shot. We started with all the upstate stuff, which we shot over a three or four-day weekend, and I guess it was towards the last day.
Felten: My memory of it is that Joe intuited there was a beat missing from the script of that breakdown, of the mask coming off, so that scene was his idea. Just as a sort of notion. And then when we talked to Stephanie she said, “Oh, I have this Swedish–” Is it a dirty song?
Hayes: It’s a song about an impotent rooster. He can’t get laid and all the hens in the yard are pissed. Then they get a young rooster into the yard and he’s, like, having sex with all the hens and getting them all knocked up. Then the other one gets angry and goes into retirement. It’s a song I’ve known since my early teens, maybe. It was like, “What can we do? I can sing a song!”
Filmmaker: It’s interesting that this scene, which functions as a sort of climax, emerged early on. The film’s structure is fascinating: the narrative is always on the edge of surreality and then you’re struck by these moments that confirm things that you were sure were fake. Similarly, due to the vignette-like construction, for a while it’s not even fully clear whether Stephanie is always the same character, though the film does draw an emotional arc, which only becomes apparent at the end. To what extent did the structure develop organically through the process of making the film, as with Stephanie’s breakdown?
Felten: While writing, part of the experiment was not outlining or adhering to anything other than what I wanted to write that day, knowing that it would all be part of the same thing at the end. I was excited to write scenes that weren’t obligated to be tied to some narrative, functionally, so it was written in this sort of fragmented, improvised way, totally out of order. I stopped when I felt the story had come to its logical conclusion. It was more of an intuition than a decision, because that’s not what the movie’s about. It’s about this inherent unknowability and untellability. That’s how it was written and we shot it in that order, but then reconfigured it a lot later.
DeNardo: We first had it assembled as written in the screenplay, but it felt really flat and weird, so we decided to take the scenes as little building blocks and re-arrange them. We tried a lot of different edits. The funding issue was somewhat to our benefit, because we could watch, take some time, let it digest, come back, until we got the final. We’re both super into films like Muriel and Je t’aime, je t’aime, things that are super fractured and structured around fragmented memories. We had talked a lot about films like that, as something that could inform some of the structural ideas.
Filmmaker: For the main characters, why did you choose actors who work primarily in theater rather than cinema?
Felten: Scott [Shepherd, who plays the counterterrorism agent] has been in a lot of movies. He was in Bridge of Spies, which he’d just done. When he then came to our set, we were like, “We have some almonds for you. We can buy you tacos…” [Laughs]
DeNardo: Yeah, he’s talking about “Steve” while I can’t get the camera to stop squeaking…
Felten: But again, it’s who we knew, who we thought we might be able to contact. I saw Scott on stage for years before we made this movie. I was going to everything The Wooster Group did and was really, really hoping that when I wrote this for him he would say yes. I knew I could email him.
DeNardo: Both Stephanie and Scott had done such rigorous work that Paul knew he could throw them these long pages of just them talking and they could tackle it within the time strictures that we had. We didn’t shoot much coverage, so you get what you get.
Felten: Yeah, the total footage is something like seven-and-a-half, eight hours.
Filmmaker: Although it’s very much a New York film and it’s about a specific milieu, you seem to purposely de-emphasize this dimension: you show very little of the actual city, many of the sets look theatrical. Can you elaborate on this strategy?
Felten: It wasn’t a conscious strategy so much as a function of knowing we couldn’t make this film if we didn’t shoot in spaces that we could control. We didn’t do much street location shooting because, you know, our crew was three people. We could have, with these actors, but we were a little afraid of such things, because we’d never done this before.
Filmmaker: I was asking because, since the film is set in New York, shot on 16mm, focused on these bohemian, solipsistic characters, when it started I thought I knew what I was in for. But then you went in a wholly unexpected direction. To what extent were you consciously working within or against a tradition?
Felten: We are inspired by a lot of different stuff. There’s these great New York independent filmmakers like Robert Kramer and Mark Rappaport, and then there’s also people like Andy Warhol, like Whit Stillman… This movie was inspired by a whole host of very eclectic influences. The godfather for all of this, aesthetically, is Jacques Rivette. Joe and I are huge, huge fans. Out 1 is something that we talked about, Céline and Julie Go Boating, L’Amour fou… He was big.
Hayes: I think also the fact that the two of you chose to collaborate, and then the people you brought into the room—also Chloë, and Eleanor [Friedberger, from the band The Fiery Furnaces]—it created a lot of difference. A lot of aesthetics and disciplines came together that created an environment, and a space, and a film, that wasn’t able to be any one vision.
And the fact that we just had to trust each other. We didn’t have time to nitpick and push beyond what everyone was going to bring to the table, which created this film that is larger than what we as individuals could control. Frankly, I’ve never seen a film like this before, and it’s hard to talk about it in a certain regard. What is it? Both its glory and its problems are a result of this.
DeNardo: Or its frustrations. And those frustrations can be intriguing and send your mind places while it’s happening.