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Michael M. Bilandic on His Unhinged Pandemic Satire Film, “Project Space 13”

Project Space 13

One of the final scenes of director Michael M. Bilandic’s fourth feature, Project Space 13, involves a delusional Manhattan gallerist wearing yellow knockoff Balenciaga sneakers and a ridiculous polka-dotted blazer at the shoreline of his beach house. He’s talking on the phone, via Airpods of course, to one of the two private security guards hired to protect the solo exhibition of an equally delusional artist named Nate in the midst of lockdown and protests.

Throughout the night, every storefront on the downtown block has been looted except the eponymous white cube, where the artist and armed guards have been sitting in paranoia and discussing their oblivious worldviews among a bunch of sculptures that are as trite as the characters’ conversations.

“We lost Soho. The battle of Soho is over,” says the gallerist (played by Bilandic regular Jason Grisell in unhinged glory) during the last of several frantic check-in calls. “I don’t know anything anymore. My brain’s gone. I want to be like the seagulls.”

He then goes on a rant about dinosaurs becoming seagulls, seagulls leading to the creation of the cartoon Woody Woodpecker, and how Woody Woodpecker has risen like a phoenix in Brazil and found newfound popularity throughout the Latin American film market. And this, somehow, is why we should aspire to be like those water birds.

It’s nuts, but the sprawling monologue was originally intended to be, without exaggeration, ten times its current length — so long that it would essentially become a full act of a film that’s otherwise just over an hour.

The idea didn’t pan out — too many people fell asleep during a test screening — but it speaks to Bilandic’s idiosyncratic humor and punk filmmaking sensibility.. It also highlights how his new pandemic satire movie probably shouldn’t be considered a grand artistic statement about art-making in the wake of COVID-19. Rather, after a different, bigger project fell apart, Blandic was “still all amped up to do something,” and wanted to take the piss and have fun with his coterie of filmmaking friends/collaborators on a shoestring budget.

Bilandic’s past features have focused on a struggling record store owner in the East Village (Happy Life, 2011), an insecure photographer who seeks career advancement by documenting a Delaware horrorcore rap group (Hellaware, 2013), and a rollerblading drug dealer who may have accidentally killed his favorite actor (Jobe’z World, 2018).

Project Space 13, which just premiered at The Roxy Theater and will be streaming on Mubi starting today, is a fitting addition to his filmograph; it includes the same protagonist from Hellaware (played again by Keith Poulson), as well as many staples from the director’s previous releases: A microbudget, a tight plotline complemented by a a wry and biting script, and recurring actors and crewmembers like DP Sean Price Williams, editor Stephen Gurewitz, and score composer Paul Grimstad. In ensemble, Project Space 13 proves itself to be a true DIY endeavor that favors an ethos and humor over articulating any profound commentary about the pandemic zeitgeist. And if you ask Bilandic, that’s exactly what he was aiming for.

Filmmaker: At what point during the pandemic did you feel confident enough or inspired to write a movie about the pandemic? Were you hesitant at all to make a satire about something that was pretty much happening in real time? Did it feel urgent to write and finish this movie while the events still felt fresh?

Mike Bilandic: I never felt confident making a “pandemic” movie, to be honest. That sounds awful. I just wanted to make a new movie. Sadly, I have no interest in directing period pieces or sci-fi, so I was stuck doing something in the present. I like character-driven, weirdo, art comedies set where I live. It felt dishonest to not use the contemporary landscape and climate, but I wanted it to be a backdrop to this story about an egomaniacal artist trying to make a name for himself, and not the other way around. There was no big, overt, statement to be made. I certainly didn’t care about getting it out in a hurry so people could soak up any wisdom and lessons from it. The only real urgency was not wanting to waste an entire year getting rejected from film festivals. Ending that abusive relationship was the only reason it came out so fast.

Filmmaker: Can you tell me about the writing process? How long did it take to bang out the script? 

Bilandic: I’d been agonizing over a bigger project for a couple years. Financing was secured and we were about to start casting it. Then, due to the world turning upside-down, it wasn’t happening. But I was still all amped up to do something. I settled on some constraints that could potentially be filmable; the new project would take place in an art gallery with a few people, one of them would be in a cage, and it could be done quickly. I sat down at my desk and banged the script out in four days. There was no outline or overthinking. I showed it to my producers and core collaborators, and to my amazement, everyone was game. We were shooting a few months later. There were no rewrites, just a few minor nuts and bolts adjustments once the cast and location were locked.

Filmmaker: You mentioned to me earlier that there’s a story of why you hired your production designer.

Bilandic: Considering the movie all basically takes place in one room, the importance of production design was greater than ever. And when you factor in how essential the art is to everything, it’s doubly important. It was the one crew role I didn’t instantly have someone in mind for. Our producer, Craig Butta, suggested this guy Steven Phelps, who was a props person on a bunch of Alex Ross Perry’s movies and also worked on Good Time. I mentioned him to our cinematographer Sean Price Williams and his eyes lit up! He informed me that Phelps had constructed a pair of hyper-realistic testicles over a lunch break one day on Listen Up Philip and that it was the most brilliant thing he’d ever seen. I was sold. We had our guy.

Filmmaker: What did you talk about when coming up with the main character’s artwork? The exhibition makes me think of Nam June Paik and Joseph Beuys’ coyote performance, but through the eyes of a Reddit-addled wannabe enfant terrible.

Bilandic: That’s a great description and those are correct references. I emailed Phelps a few of my fave Paik television sculptures and said I wanted to make more menacing versions of them. We never got too deep in our discussions. But the basic idea is Nate’s living in a cage for 120 days, subsisting off bugs and soylent. He occasionally gets shocked by an AI learning robot named Zebos who mocks and abuses him. There’s a bunch of towering electronic junk sculptures surrounding his cage. The piece is a mix of memelord, grad student, and Burning Man. Scary stuff! We didn’t make many sketches or plans. Phelps had a huge studio upstate filled with crazy amounts of vintage electronics. He packed it all in a truck, brought an air mattress, and moved into the gallery for a few days. The work was all catered to what he had, as well as the space.

Filmmaker: I’m also curious about the artist’s statement on the wall of the gallery. 

Bilandic: So there’s a part in the movie where one of the security guards asks Nate a logistical question about how one of the artworks is powered. He can’t answer it because he has absolutely no idea. It’s revealed he had nothing to do with the building of the sculptures. He defiantly announces that he “intellectually built them.” That’s the long way of saying I didn’t write the statement on the wall.

The night before our first day of shooting, Phelps suggested we make some wall text to sell the gallery as more authentic. It was a perfect idea, but I was deep in the middle of putting out some type of logistical fire and wasn’t by a computer. So someone in the art department whipped it up. It made sense to me on a meta-level that Nate wouldn’t write his own artist statement and, subsequently, I wouldn’t write it either! Nate and I are relatable in that department.

They say Kubrick could do everyone on set’s job better than them. He could AC better than the AC, sound record better than the sound recordist, etc. I cannot relate to that on any level. A lot of people are pretty sure I can’t even write or direct. So while I was exploring, and satirizing, issues of out-of-touch institutions, the esoteric luxury goods market, and know-it-all blowhards, I would also like to think I was addressing my own insecurities and convoluted ideas, about my own work.

Filmmaker: The film was shot in three days, right? You said during a screening that Jobe’z World was shot in six days, but you thought this film would be easier to make because it had only a few characters and took place mostly in one location. Did that logic pan out?

Bilandic: The simple answer to that question is “no.” That logic’s pretty stupid. We shot Jobe’z World in six days. It had a bunch of characters and locations. So if we had half the characters and only one location, we should be able to feasibly make Project Space 13 with the same amount of ease as Jobe’z World in three days? That’s not accounting for a whole lot of variables.

The more sophisticated answer is “yes,” that logic does hold up, because it’s so stupid to even try to do something in three days or six days in the first place! Right before filming Phelps pulled me off to the side and asked how we were planning on shooting like 25 pages of the script per day? I paused, thought about it deeply for a sec, and was like, “I dunno!” Sean and I hadn’t even talked about it. There was no AD either. It was one of those things where if you think about it, you’ll instantly talk yourself out of doing it. So it’s better not to think about. This put an enormous burden on the actors, as well as everyone. And I appreciate them bravely going along with it. 

We were all setting ourselves up for extreme embarrassment. But, in my opinion, everyone was on their A-game and there’s a manic energy that I love, which can create moments of pure derangement that you would never get from having the luxury of more time and money. For example, Theodore Bouloukos has a monologue that was shot in one take, and everything magically fell into place for it. Moments like that are really special.

Filmmaker: Something I find interesting about the film is that the private security guards with big guns feel fantastical or melodramatic at first glance… but then thinking back to the pandemic/protests, people (especially rich people) were really freaked out and losing their shit. Do you consider the paranoia in the film to be representative of how people actually acted during the pandemic? Or would you say there’s some irony and histrionics at play?  

Bilandic: Oh, I think it’s accurate. Security guards used to just wear tucked in button-up shirts. So many now look like something out of an Enzo G. Castellari movie, like The New Barbarians. If any element is ironic or whatever here, it’s that these jobs can’t be filled. As a result, you get these two completely unqualified bozos in ill-fitting storm trooper uniforms, bumping into each other, dropping their guns, and following zero protocols whatsoever. 

The other question that you’re getting at is, is this stuff worth protecting? Happy Life, which was about the owner of an all techno record store, deals with the dilemma of what happens when you dedicate your life to something that you like, that was once important to the masses, and one day it appears to be totally out of fashion and you know the party’s over. The gallerist in Project Space 13, Pieter, is going through that same problem, but from a different angle.

Filmmaker: Jason Grisell’s monologue at the end of the film about seagulls, dinosaurs, and Woody Woodpecker’s newfound popularity in Brazil is truly wild and incredible. Can you talk about writing that speech and where the Woody Woodpecker detail came from? You mentioned that at one point this monologue was going to be much, much longer, but then you changed your mind.

Bilandic: One of the great pleasures of making zero-budge work is you can take ridiculous structural risks that wouldn’t cut it on most larger-scale projects. Towards the end of the movie, there’s an outrageously long and meandering monologue on a beach. It was originally way, way longer. It was like a quarter of the movie! When we had our first rough cut screening, half the people in the room were literally asleep by the end of it. Snoring! So we dialed it back. 

In the end, you have to do what feels right. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the film. I heard Paul Schrader talk about how on First Reformed they had all these rigorous, formal, self-imposed rules for how they were going to shoot it. They did that for exactly one day, were unhappy with the footage, and decided to just do it in a way that feels right, rather than blindly bow down to their own esoteric rules.

Anyway, the beach monologue was written super fast, in one sitting, just unloading the most insane gibberish I could think of. There’s a homage to the Mickey Rourke movie Homeboy in there. He spirals out about Woody Woodpecker at one point, and his history in Latin markets. There was a Woody Woodpecker movie a while back that was made by an American studio and was a huge hit in Brazil but never came out here theatrically. I believe there was a huge Top Cat movie in Mexico, too. I’d love to get into that scene. Find a B-team Looney Tunes characters, and wild out for a non-US market.

Filmmaker: There’s this quote — I think it’s a Robert Ebert quote — about how movies that are deeply rooted in a particular place and time have better longevity if the focus is narrow and not generalized. In other words, if you tried to make a movie that encapsulates the entire American zeitgeist during the pandemic, the film wouldn’t hold up as well over time, compared to a story that takes place in the downtown art world. Do you agree with that? Will this movie be a stronger time capsule because it’s more focused on a particular slice of life and culture?

Bilandic: I can’t say, but it sounds like a reasonable theory. It’s funny the way people used to talk about things feeling dated and what you could do to not seem dated. Today, anything made three hours ago is dated. I had a teacher once say the first thing to feel dated on a film is the music, the implication being you should use some kind of generic classical score because it’s more universal. I like movies that are hyper-specific, niche, snapshots of a time and place, as well as films that are broad, universal, and aiming huge. I mean, we’ll be lucky if any of this shit survives in the future.

Project Space 13 is screening at Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg on December 14th, and will be streaming on Mubi from December 10th on.

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