“We Called the Wide-Angle Lens ‘The Violence Lens’….”: Director Orson Oblowitz on His Hallucinatory Psychodrama, The Five Rules of Success
When we first meet X (Santiago Segura) in an extended moving camera shot that follows him exiting a state penitentiary, the length of the sentence he’s just completed is signaled by the contents of the box of vintage tech and media he carries: an outdated computer monitor with the clear plastic revealing its circuit board; tech-nerd, unfashionable over-the-ear headphones; the Trainspotting soundtrack CD. He takes the bus home — a one-room apartment minimalist in all the wrong ways (no “apartment therapy” here), which The Five Rules of Success director Orson Oblowitz, acting as his own cinematographer, captures with a kind of urine-stained glow, as if X is swimming inside of Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ. Any suggestion that X is “free” is dispelled by the starkness of film’s 4:3 frame — the outside contains its own treacheries, from the brutal economics of the service industry X goes to work in to the kinky whims of an empowered parole officer. Extreme accelerated passages both take X from point A to point B and express the hallucinatory elements of a life outside where the surfaces are all new but life under capitalism remains the same.
Like any ex-con in a post-prison movie, X has a dream. I won’t spoil his here, except to note that it’s tremendously satisfying when it’s revealed, both a satiric masterstroke (in our interview below, Oblowitz says he was inspired by Brian DePalma’s Hi, Mom) as well as something that, although seemingly implausible, I could imagine actually playing out in real life.
The Five Rules of Success, out now on digital platforms from Ambassador Film Group, is Oblowitz’s third feature in four years, and as he discusses here, that’s the result of an ultra-low-budget practice that is in his DNA. (He’s inspired by the New York No Wave era of his father’s, the director Michael Oblowitz — the elder Oblowitz’s King Blank is a seminal picture of that movement that has remained woefully under screened — and his mom is actress Rosemary Hochschild, who in addition to appearing in Five Rules has acted in a number of that movement’s notable pictures.) Premiering at last year’s Fantasia Festival, the picture is both a compelling, immersive, entirely of-the-moment psychodrama as well as a glorious throwback to times when independent cinema felt more outlaw — rougher, edgier and entirely uncompromising.
I interviewed Oblowitz by email, and we discussed the film’s influences and inspiration, some dialogue that quotes writer and criminal Jack Henry Abbott, and why Oblowitz shot his own movie for the first time.
Filmmaker: This is the first time we’ve interviewed you, and it’s on the occasion of three films finished in a span of four years. So give us some background on you as a filmmaker and the approach you’ve taken to be relatively prolific in a short period of time. How did you get into directing, and what sort of production models are you developing to serve the sorts of films you want to make?
Oblowitz: I’m honestly a fan of your publication so happy y’all finally came around to me, haha. I’ve done every job under the sun in the filmmaking industry because I never wanted to be in a position where I can’t make sure one of my films get made. I grew up enamored by Corman, Larry Cohen, Sam Fuller, Fred Olen Ray. These filmmakers that were able to not only do so much with so little, but saw smaller budgets as an asset rather than a detriment. When you look at the body of Larry Cohen’s work, who above all is probably the filmmaker I most admire, you see veins of artistic subtexts that run through all of them. I rewatched Black Caesar the other day, and the scene where Fred Williamson paints the shoe shine on the cop that abused him and they cut between the racial trauma he suffered as a kid to the vengeance he was getting in the present is as good a piece of filmmaking that’s ever been printed. It had nothing to do with budget or money, just pure storytelling. Also, I gotta shout out my ride-or-die crew that got paid in Korean bbq rice bowls and who each did the job of three people. I’ve been very lucky and if I believed in god would use the word “blessed.”
Filmmaker: Your lead character echoes a line at one point originally spoken by Jack Henry Abbott, the criminal who Norman Mailer famously helped release from prison in 1981. The Abbott story is one that spoke to the issues around prison reform in the 1980s, and your film takes place 40 years later. What’s different and what’s similar regarding these issues between then and now, and how did the contemporary politics of policing and the prison system inform your story?
Oblowitz: With Abbott we saw a guy that should’ve been a literary giant but instead lived a life of incarceration and obscurity. He wasn’t without the ability to be reformed. The system gave him no real tools for reform so when he was let out of prison of course he turned to violence — it’s what he knew to survive. I think at this point the prison industrial complex is a complete sham. The idea that private citizens and corporations profit off prisons necessitating them to be populated is worse than any of the rings in Dante’s Inferno. We lose people in prison, force sterilization on Black women, what we saw with Covid running rampant in places like San Quentin was a complete failure of a system to show any humanity to the inmates. We shot the opening of film in a prison that had been closed down for mixing both ICE detainees (these are not criminals) with criminal population to make more profit. I have a friend inside, and occasionally we talk through a phone he has in there. This guy was a big inspiration for the film. He could’ve been anything, model, boxer, clothing designer. But the system has kept him going around and around in it for years for parole violations etc…he told me the biggest killer is the boredom. The relationship in Success between X and the Parole Officer is quite sanitized compared to the stories I was told and researched. In my opinion American prisons are an abject failure and the stem of it is systemic racism and the rot of capitalism. It’s not an anti-prison film, it’s an anti-capitalist film as was my first movie The Queen of Hollywood Blvd. and as my next film will be as well.
Filmmaker: Tell us about the shoot. How many days, what size crew, and what was the most challenging production element you faced?
Oblowitz: Thirteen days. It’s interesting because I don’t have any memories of the production being challenging. I mean there’s the expected hiccups of making a film. Not enough time, money, prep. But there was such a collaborative vibe it felt like we all could’ve stayed on set forever. Everyone was 100% behind what we were doing. Everyone went above and beyond. Santiago went as far as he could go and allowed me to push him. All the actors showed up with very little prep as we were working with no money and few rehearsals. I had worked with most of them before: Jonathan Howard in Trespassers, Roger Guenveur Smith in Queen, Jon Sklaroff in Queen. Isidora [Goreshter], who is crazier than everyone for meeting me on my level. She killed it. My producer Christian [de Gallegos] gave me all the freedom I wanted. (He also came up with the actual “five rules of success” in the film.) There were no monitors on set. Most scenes were just myself, the actors, Nobu [Sakurai], my AC, Steve Hunt my sound mixer, Rhys [Raiskin], my first AD/producer/everything, and that was it. Brittany my hair and makeup wizard and Cocoa [Rigal] pulling magic with her costumes very quickly before shooting. Jeff Katz my co-editor on set everyday bouncing ideas. I really can’t express the gratitude to those people. I didn’t make it easy.
Filmmaker: This is the first of your three features that you’ve acted as your own cinematographer. What led to that decision, and how did your dual role affect your directing and working with the actors? And, tell us about what went into your choice of camera, lens and the film’s visual style, which features wide-angle lenses and scenes that have saturated color schemes.
Oblowitz: I’ve always done cinematography for smaller projects and am first a photographer before a filmmaker. I guess the best place to start with this question are the films I was inspired by: Sion Sono’s Havoc, Lee Chang Dong’s Green Fish, Gaspar Noe’s short from Destricted, Refn’s Pusher 2. There’s such a distinct tone and energy to these films, I didn’t have a way to translate that verbally to another cinematographer. I knew with the speed we would be shooting that I didn’t have time and in all honesty, with the budget we were working with, I wanted the opportunity to film it myself. Almost the whole film was shot on a 10mm lens or a vintage Canon 16mm zoom. We called the wide angle lens “the violence lens.” There’s such an amazing duality to using one. Doing a closeup on a 10mm you are less than 1’ away from the subject, completely invading their personal space, at the same time, distorting all of reality and giving a sense of distance to the viewer. There’s scenes where Danny and X are arguing and you see the actors bump into me. I left it in the film. It’s part of the fabric and texture. We all know it’s a movie. I’m not trying to trick anyone, I just want them to feel like they are invading X’s personal space. We also heavily filtered the lenses, actually using my dad’s personal collection of glass he had made in the ’80s and ’90s to degrade the image into a dream-like haze.
For the lighting, my gaffer Gonzalo worked as a strong collaborator. It felt like the old days when they were referred to as “lighting cameramen.” I have to give him lots of credit along with Hermexial my grip. we all worked hand in hand. For the palette I leaned very much into green and yellow because I wanted the lighting to feel like the color of money.
Filmmaker: Without going into spoilers, I’d love to hear you talk about the ending, which I thought was just fantastic. The dream X has been striving for struck me as an endeavor I could actually imagine in real life. At the same time, the ending speaks to the question of who’s allowed within society to be a kind of artist — or, perhaps (and going back to Abbott), the thin line that separates the artist from the criminal, or the artist from the con man.
Oblowitz: That was my little nod to De Palma’s Hi Mom. People want to “observe trauma” but not experience it. They commodify and use it for clout, but no one really wants to know what it’s like to be locked up 24/7. My dad used to live in Venice Beach back in the day, there was a shirt that people wore around the neighborhood [that read], “Venice, Where art meets crime.” I think the artist has a duty to expose our subconscious desires and perversions. Criminals live beyond the law outside of societal boundaries. I think that’s why artists have an infatuation with these romantic underworld figures. They take the plunge we only get close to through our fantasy factory. Obviously people like Abbott and Eddie Bunker were able to live in both worlds. Bunker being another big influence on the film, especially the movie Straight Time which was based off his life. Rap music to me is the great equalizer in art. In rap a criminal can become an artist and make a whole new life for themselves by talking about their past. Giving their trauma a reason to exist.
Filmmaker: Your mom, the actress Rosemary Hochschild, appears in the film, and some viewers will recall her work in pictures associated with the downtown New York and No Wave scenes by filmmakers such as Bette Gordon, Lizzie Borden, Chris Kraus and, of course, your father, whose King Blank she co-stars in. Despite the decades between those films as well as the distance between New York and LA, I saw a bit of that era’s DNA, or perhaps just its energies, in your film. In what ways, if any, have your parents’ work influenced yours, whether that’s artistically or just in terms of modelling independent production?
Oblowitz: My first film, The Queen of Hollywood Blvd., was a nod to the film my father and mother made in 1982, King Blank. That No Wave era was amazing and gave us a real moment in uncorrupted art..They saw the city for the taking. Bette Gordon, Lizzie Borden, my dad Michael Oblowitz, Amos Poe. Those filmmakers were children of Godard and Fassbinder. They were badasses and approached filmmaking with a violent dark energy which was a result of both post-Vietnam era America and prescient of Reagan’s neoliberal agenda to come. They used low budgets to push the boundaries. I was brought up with the attitude that there shouldn’t be an impediment in making your art. 50$ or 50mil, you make it. I’m really happy to see their films having a resurgence on Criterion and in the revival art house theater world. They were futurists. I really think right now we could use a little edge and kick in the ass in American film. We are falling behind the rest of the world which is producing radical cinema at an alarming rate. The festivals have a responsibility to find artists and push boundaries and to me the major ones are failing us in their endless search for a big sale to a tech giant and sanitized flavor of the month agendas. Thank god for the genre fests and international ones that take on edgier fare. I’m so glad we premiered with Fantasia in the middle of Covid. This is the sign of the times and we need to embrace it as artists. Everything is cyclical and I feel like there’s about to be a revolution to edgier art again, last year with the protests and Covid, we need to guillotine some billionaires, and make films with that same energy. I’ve always been jealous that my parents and the artists around them were part of a movement centered around Downtown NYC and I have high hopes for the future that there’s another one on the way and a new crop of undiscovered filmmakers who will usher it in.
Filmmaker: Finally, I understand that X’s apartment in the film is your own, and that it’s also the place that you wrote the script. I thought a bit about Paul Schrader’s “man in a room” films, in which aspects of a small urban space — the sense of privacy as well as the isolation — informs and shapes the character. How did the specifics of this space inform the film — psychologically as well as from a production standpoint?
Oblowitz: I mean Taxi Driver is the G.O.A.T of psychodramas. I always look to it as a reference. Schrader has the ability to transcend loneliness into an act of romance, I’ve always been enamored by his filmmaking. First Reformed to me is the film of our times (along with Moonlight.) That space we shot X’s apartment was my office where I wrote, shot, edited and made the film. Sadly I had to give it up during lockdown. For X, that apartment is his sanctuary, his church. He doesn’t need much, the fact that he can open and close a door on his own volition is more than enough. It means there is nothing to stop him. He has his prison issued tv in there and a microwave, the world is his. You see him going from eating with his hands in there to learning to use chopsticks. That’s real growth. Someone criticized the scene where he trashes his room as cliche. Of course it’s cliche, it’s exactly what he would do. It’s the only place that he ever had as his own. It’s sacred, to destroy it is to hurt himself. He’s a self flagellating masochist. He wants to get closer to his mother through auto-asphyxiation. He’s complex.