“The Camera Gives Me Permission to Feel the Things I’m Always Pushing Down”: Writer, Director and Actor Cooper Raiff on Shithouse
Shithouse, Cooper Raiff’s profanely-titled first feature, chronicles an inspired romance between two young souls on disparate higher education voyages. Told with real insight about college-age characters and their flawed relationships, the picture earned 23-year-old Raiff—a softhearted wunderkind who wrote, directed and starred in the film—the Grand Jury Award at this year’s pandemic-impacted SXSW.
Life between dorms and parties doesn’t exactly suit shy freshman Alex Malmquist (Raifff), who’s most comfortable seeking advice from an adorable childhood plush animal he’s brought from home. Though he puts in some effort to adapt to dorm life, he still yearns for the comforting embrace of his protective family. Escaping from his party-obsessed roommate one night, Alex runs into Maggie (Dylan Gelula), a charismatic, no-nonsense sophomore. As dreams and traumas surface in conversation, a connection is kindled.
Raiff’s emotionally deft writing and unexpectedly tender performance elevate Shithouse‘s modest, character-based drama. His talent showed such promise that Jay Duplass boarded Shithouse early on, when it only existed as a DIY project made by Raiff, his girlfriend at the time, and a friend over a school break. That cheaply made, first iteration uploaded online was enough to convince the seasoned indie filmmaker to bet on a feature version by the fresh-faced outsider.
Lovely and affecting, the college dramedy announces an exciting new filmmaker with interests along the lines of those in works by directors like Noah Baumbach and Richard Linklater. Shithouse is currently in release from IFC Films.
Filmmaker: Your path into filmmaking has been unusual. I understand that you didn’t precisely set out to become a writer-director. What was the moment or incident that changed the course for you?
Raiff: In my senior year of high school I wrote a play that I acted in. It was just because a lot of the seniors did that. I didn’t all of a sudden say, ‘I want to write a play.’ It was just a class that seniors were in, but I really loved it. When I got to college, I was just really into writing, but no one was reading anything that I’d written. At some point during my sophomore year of college, I decided that in order to get my stuff read I had to make something. And so during Spring Break I made a movie called “Madeline & Cooper” that was like 50 minutes long, and then that turned into S#!%house. I put that on YouTube and then I tweeted it to Jay Duplass of the Duplass Brothers. He watched it, liked it, and helped me turn it into S#!%house.
Filmmaker: Did you have any experience making films at that point or was it completely spontaneous?
Raiff: It was totally a winging it situation for sure. I had written before, but I’d never wanted to direct anything. The directing was, not uncomfortable, because I ended really loving it, but it was not something that I intended to do. The reason why I did it was just so that I could show people things that I’ve written. I thought it would hopefully be good enough and people would be interested. The short was a 50-minute version of the movie, basically the one night, and it was written pretty quickly. Shithouse is obviously a lot better, but it was basically: these two people meet in college, a freshmen and sophomore, and then they go and bury this turtle. That was the main crux of the movie.
Filmmaker: When Jay Duplass came on board, did you feel you needed to professionalize your visual style in a sense or transition from the spur-of-the-moment approach into something more polished to make the feature?
Raiff: Honestly, I never really thought about it too much. I was really just always concerned with the writing the characters and with the acting. I just found a really good DP, Rachel Klein, and that was what made all the difference. She knew exactly what she wanted the movie to look like. And she knew that I didn’t care as much. I wasn’t as concerned with being picky about how a scene was covered. I always have my ideas and my thoughts, but in terms of the visuals, we just had a DP that was really awesome.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the process of expanding the screenplay from what you originally had for the shorter iteration.
Raiff: The short was kind of two acts and I left the third act out because we filmed it so fast. Writing Shithouse was about adding that third act, that second day in the story, because the short ends with that night. It was really easy. I’d never thought about turning it into something bigger, until I met with Jay for lunch and he brought up the idea of turning it into a feature that looked good and was well made with professionals. We made the short literally with three people. I was booming, my girlfriend who had never acted before was in it, and the person holding the camera had never held a camera before. When he said the idea of making it into a feature, it was super exciting. I wrote it really fast because I was just excited to have an opportunity to make a feature.
Filmmaker: What’s the most valuable piece of advice you got from Jay Duplass about the process given that he’s a veteran in the indie film world?
Raiff: Endless advice. He taught me how to make a movie. The best advice probably was that he wanted me to stay focused on what I wanted to be focused on. He always cared about what he loved about the short when he watched it, which was just the grounded characters and how personal it is. The best advice was staying as close to the short as possible, and trusting the instincts that I had on the first version of the movie.
Filmmaker: Did you always know you wanted to star in the film? If not, what motivated the decision to also take on that on-camera role?
Raiff: I acted in the short and when I made the decision to act in Shithouse was because it was cheaper, but also I just wanted to own the story that I was telling, own what I was saying about college. There was a couple people that I pictured playing Alex, but none of them had gone to college. Also, Dylan Gelula who plays Maggie and Logan Miller who plays my roommate Sam, they hadn’t been to college. I really wanted someone in the movie to really have experienced that like college life. There’s also something more immediate about me playing the character that just like feels more visceral than it would have if a stellar actor would have come in and shown off his chops.
Filmmaker: I read somewhere that you dropped out of college to make the feature.
Raiff: I did. It’s ironic. I dropped out as soon as Jay brought up the idea of making a movie. I didn’t tell him, because I didn’t want to put pressure on him to help me out. It was right before I had to pay for a semester and I just was like, “It makes more sense to take this opportunity.” I always thought, “If this doesn’t work out, I can always go back and just take that year off.” But then it worked out really well. There’s still a part of me that wants to go back because I do think I missed out on a couple awesome years. Buy I don’t have any plans of going back anytime soon.
Filmmaker: In terms of college life as depicted in the film, what would you say was the thesis of your story? What does Alex’s experience illuminate about these formative places and the young people that inhabit them?
Raiff: The fact that no one prepares you for how hard it is to sleep under a new ceiling for the first time. It’s so hard to fall asleep that first night. Everyone deals with that, whether they’re moving down the street from their first home or not. I wanted the movie to be about your second home.
For me, college was a shitty home because I had such solid rocks in my family members and was so dependent on them. So when I got to college, taking care of myself for the first time in 18 years was very difficult and super painful. I also wanted to show how hard it is for parents to leave their kids there and drive away. But at the same time I wanted to show the Maggie perspective, which is very much based on the girl that I dated for a long time. She’s someone who was thriving at college because her upbringing was very independent. Whereas for me, for 18 years I had such a safety net and when I got to college I was just without it.
She wasn’t raised with that safety net, so when she got to college it was kind of the same thing that she had always been doing. She’s crushing it. Then they meet and they’re such foils for each other. I wanted to get both sides of that argument of, “Should we look out for each other?” “Do we owe each other anything?” College was the first time where I really thought about that. I came to realize that even though I love taking care of people and looking out for each other, I have to take care of myself first in order to really do a good job of helping and taking care of other people in a healthy way,
Filmmaker: Do you get the sense that certain movies romanticize college or tend to focus on the idea of the careless excitement, kids having “the time of their lives”?
Raiff: I don’t know if I would say they romanticize college. It’s just that they don’t know college very well. It seems like they are writing from a place of nostalgia or from a place of “those were the best years of our life.” I mean, Shithouse is very romantic but it just knows what the pain of it is. I haven’t really seen that many college movies, but in the ones that I’ve seen where they do show a scene from college or try to bottle up college, the writers see college as a playground for them to do whatever. For me, there was only one thing that I was going to make a movie about if I made a movie about college, and that was the idea of leaving home and growing up. The parties are there, we have party scenes, but even those are involved with the theme. There was really no other thing to say about college other than the fact that it’s your second home.
Filmmaker: It’s also refreshing to see a college-age male protagonist express such vulnerability on screen. There are several scenes in which Alex, as played by you, can’t suppress his emotions and allows himself to go through them—as painful as they are.
Raiff: I cry really easily. Some of the crying scenes were pretty easy, but the climax scene where I’m crying with my mom on the phone was devastating on the day. It kind of hit me by surprise just how emotional I was. There was a take where I wasn’t as emotional and I think some people were like, “Maybe you should use this take because it’s pretty scary how intense it is.” When I was filming that scene all of the gravity of never being able to go back to that place where you were with your parents, your first home, came down on me. It was just so devastating. It was truly difficult. I was genuinely so sad when I filmed that. It’s usually never that hard for me to go there. The camera gives me permission to feel the things I’m always pushing down. If I write myself a scene where I’m emotional, it’s almost freeing in a way.
Filmmaker: College movies are often associated with unchecked toxic masculinity. Elements of that are in the film, but are not glorified as an ideal, but questioned.
Raiff: Definitely. I have so many masculinity issues ingrained in me, but I’m way more interested in the person who is emotional. I tried to make fun of, if anything, the people who weren’t that way. I tried to show how “character-y” masculinity is. It’s a performance, and there’s no organic place that it’s coming from. Alex is someone who goes by his own rules always, and that’s why he’s a really shitty person at times. He doesn’t have his value system thought out very well, and part of that too is that he doesn’t have that masculinity value system of like, “I got to do this.” He doesn’t know what he’s doing. People who don’t know what they’re doing are very emotional.
Filmmaker: How did the idea of having a plush wolf be Alex’s confidant come about? It’s a whimsical, yet moving element that, as peculiar as it is, fits perfectly with his personality.
Raiff: I wanted to show that his dead dad was with him somehow, even though I never say directly. Obviously it’s just him talking to himself, but I always envisioned [the wolf] being the dad character. That’s the way the dad is present throughout the movie. But it’s also a really great storytelling device to start the movie. It tells you exactly who the character is and helps you share with the audience what’s going on inside of the character’s head in that moment.
Filmmaker: Why use subtitles for the wolf to communicate instead of giving it a voice?
Raiff: I could have made the stuffed animal be really funny. Some people were like, “You have a really big opportunity to make him talk really funny or give him a very distinct personality,” but I always wrote him as Alex’s father. What would dad say to Alex in this moment? And maybe the dad does have a bit of a sense of humor, but he’s not going to have a certain way of talking. I could have punched up those lines, but I wanted to keep it true to my idea. It’s a self-parenting device that works even when you don’t have a dead parent. When you’re away from your parents, you’re constantly having a dialogue with the people that raised you.
Filmmaker: Having made the shorter piece with only a couple other people without worrying much about the production value, was it difficult to adapt to a professional set where you were spearheading the projects?
Raiff: It felt intimidating. It was the most vulnerable thing I’ve ever done. Everyone was like looking to me to steer the ship, but I’m not a very good leader in that way. I don’t feel comfortable in that position, but, going back on the last question, all the other supporting roles besides Dylan, Logan and Amy were all my friends. So I was surrounded by a lot of my friends. It was really nice to direct my friends, but also just to be surrounded by people that I knew and felt comfortable with. That was huge, but also the set was still super tiny. I think if I make another movie that’s out of a studio, I’ll be very overwhelmed just by like, “Why do I need all these people?” For this one we didn’t have any money, so we were constantly trying to like kick people off set and that made it less intimidating.
Filmmaker: You were also acting and directing at the same time. That’s an ambitious double challenge.
Raiff: It was really hard on everybody else. For me, it was kind of nice at times because I knew exactly what I wanted to say and the exact tone I wanted to strike. But the reason why those roles are usually different roles for different people is that it’s so hard on everybody else. You want your director to be a director, and you don’t want your director to be worried about how he’s saying lines. You want the director to be in charge of what the director is in charge of. I think it really tested everybody’s patience on set.
Filmmaker: You had a clear idea of why you needed to play the protagonist, but what was that decision process to cast the supporting roles? There are very well known actors in the film.
Raiff: Jay Duplass was really helpful. Jay is best friends with Amy Landecker, who plays my mom, so he asked a favor. Then Dylan, I messaged her on Instagram with another person who follows her, so I knew she would see it. We just very randomly reached out to her, but we didn’t have a casting director. We didn’t do a casting at all. I didn’t have anyone audition for anything. I just always asked straight up, “Will you do this?”
It was about knowing who was exact right person for the job, which means there was the risk of getting too attached to the idea of someone like Logan playing the part. I really wanted him to play the roommate. I sent him a very direct, personal message saying, “You’re the only person for the job.” And I think he took that seriously. From my experience, every time I fixate on a person and tell them how much I love them and tell them how much I need and want their help, they usually say yes. I’d be the same way if I got a message like that saying, “I need your special set of skills.” I’d be like, “Okay, great. Let’s do it.”