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“Originally I Had a 200-Page Script”: Ricky D’Ambrose on The Cathedral

Hudson McGuire in Ricky D’Ambrose’s The CathedralHudson McGuire in The Cathedral

Ricky D’Ambrose’s second feature, The Cathedral, begins in the mid-’80s, with a narrator outlining the history of the Damrosch family: father Richard (Brian d’Arcy James), mother Lydia (Monica Barbaro) and son Jesse (Hudson McGuire as an adolescent, Robert Levey II as a pre-teen, William Bednar-Carter as a teenager). The film begins shortly before the latter’s birth and continues into the mid-aughts, outlining an often difficult Long Island upbringing. Richard casts a dark shadow over Jesse’s upbringing. The years’ passing is concretized datewise by a plethora of broadcast news footage—a new element for D’Ambrose’s work in a feature full of them. I spoke to D’Ambrose before the US premiere of his film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Filmmaker: Between your first feature, Notes on an Appearance, and this, you made a number of shorts, which, in terms of the independent narrative model, is something that’s not done often. Shorts are a means in order to progress to feature filmmaking. They’re not used after a first feature as a site of experimentation and trying out new things, which you did conspicuously in those shorts.

D’Ambrose: I had the idea of Notes on an Appearance for a long time, ever since I was in grad school, but wanted to try out a few things as a filmmaker before I made a feature. That’s what the shorts did: I shot and edited them myself, I was my own sound recordist, I was a production designer on them. In 2017, [producer] Graham [Swon] introduced me to [DP] Bart [Cortright], whom he’d known since his student days at Carnegie Mellon. Bart allowed me to, for the first time, not have to be concerned about operating a camera. I continue to frame shots myself, but Bart is using his own camera and lenses, with his own assistants, and he’s lighting the set as needed. So, it’s not as though I’d want a DP to take over and impose their own visual style or way of seeing things. But working with a DP has allowed me to spend time with the actors in a way that I couldn’t before.

The performance style in the shorts is born from a few reasons, one being that most of the people I’ve worked with up until now as actors were not trained professionally. That compelled me to strip away from them any attempts at acting, at least in the sense we typically consider it, as something concerned mainly with the inner lives or psychology of characters. The uninflected performances, or what seems like an anti-psychologizing performance style—yes, you could talk about precursors, like Bresson and Straub-Huillet—was a result of working with people, mainly friends, who showed up on set each day unequipped with the same kinds of resources that a trained actor might have. That’s not a criticism. But it did pose a risk—that some of the actors might try to overcorrect for their lack of training by, saying, being theatrical—that I wanted to avoid. Also, it seemed to fit with the tone of the films—the way actors speak, the way they move, the tone of their voices, they’re all formal properties of the film, and those things could be modulated. And, at the time, I thought they ought to be modulated in the most even, consistent way.

But with The Cathedral, dealing with trained, working actors, they bring their instincts to the roles they’re playing in a way that the actors I’ve worked with previously didn’t, or couldn’t, because they weren’t able to. This new film, if anything, was a way of learning to trust those people to make decisions, to rely on their instincts. And in the end, the film does, for the most part, have what I’d guess you’d call a more naturalistic acting style. It’s also because, I think, I wanted to be more respectful of the contributions of the actors.

Filmmaker: I would imagine that to even write something like this, you had to know that some more money and professional casting would be involved. Otherwise, there would be no point in writing it—you can’t really do this with terrible actors. You had casting directors on this, and I don’t think you’d worked with this kind of casting process before and had the luxury of doing that.

D’Ambrose: The treatment of the script was written last April, because I was encouraged by Graham to apply to the Venice Biennale College, and part of the application process was that you submit an outline and a visual proposal for a feature length project you want to do. And being that this movie about my family was something I had wanted to make for a long time, even before I had the idea for Notes on an Appearance, I figured, “This is a good opportunity just to write it, and I’m not going to be concerned about a budget. I’m going to write the film I’ve wanted to make.” 

The film that showed at Venice and Sundance is pretty different, pared down from the first draft. It’s shorter by about an hour. Originally I had a 200-page script that was going to be filled with a lot of incidental pop music that would be part of the rooms that the characters are in. There were going to be two parts: the first half was the family’s rise, and the pop music you’d hear would be roughly contemporaneous with the years onscreen. Then, in the second part, as the family becomes more decadent and nostalgic about its past, the music would be stuck in place, in the late ’80s, which is the time of the family’s peak years. But it simply wasn’t possible to license even a fraction of this music without spending more than half of the Venice grant, which was 150,000 euros. And so, concessions were made. Hence the finished film. 

150,000 euros to shoot a feature-length ensemble film during pandemic didn’t go very far. It allowed us to pay [SAG] union wages and have small departments. A lot of that went to COVID testing, etc. But anyone who read the first draft of the script invariably asked some version of: “Where’s the money coming from? How are you going to afford the sync rights to Enya and Madonna? Who’s your lawyer?” If I didn’t get the grant from the Venice Biennale College, it’s possible that I would’ve spent years trying, and failing, to finance the film in its early form. I wanted to find a way to make the film that retained the spirit of the early drafts, although in a different form, and I think I did that. And I think the film benefits from having some of those things taken out of it—it’s more condensed, more economical than the first version of it. 

Not having worked with casting directors before, I was admittedly a bit skeptical. But I did know that I wouldn’t have the time or attention to put together such a large cast by myself.  I also don’t have a very good sense of the talent that exists in New York’s theater and television communities. So, the casting directors, Ally Beans and Daryl Eisenberg, freed us up, but they also—and this is what casting directors do, as I rather naively learned—made creative decisions. They set up the basic infrastructure, yes: character breakdowns, videorecorded auditions, callbacks. But they also put actors’ faces to roles. Brian d’Arcy James wouldn’t have occurred to me for the role of Richard, even if I had a sense of who he was from his work on Broadway. Originally, I thought the part called for an instinctively swaggering Italian-American actor, or at least a more aggressive figure. However, Brian turned the character into something else, and I think the role, and the film more generally, benefits from that. 

Filmmaker: As far as the actual particulars when casting somebody like Brian, what did you find yourself doing? Did you have them read a particular part of the script? Did you find yourself needing to read Stanislavski or something to think about communicating with actors as a new thing? I’m terrible with understanding performance. That’s part of the reason I ask—it’s very hard for me to tell you why a performance is good, or what that might mean, or the means by which it might be elicited. This is a very weak area for me.

D’Ambrose: Well, it’s a weak area for both of us. The experience of casting the film and working with casting directors was, for me, initially—I don’t know, it seemed like there had been prohibitions placed on [the process] for me for years because of anxiety about it. But Brian and Monica Barbaro, who plays Lydia, are two actors I cast without auditions. (As I’ve learned, it’s not uncommon for an agent to tell a filmmaker, “My client will not read for you. You can send us an offer, but no auditions.”) Ultimately, I trusted them based on the quality of their past work, and on our rapport. Talking to actors about any number of things, listening to their voice, being able to see how they comport themselves in conversation—these things are often just as valuable as asking an actor to read for a role. It was also important to me that whoever played Richard and Lydia bear some physical resemblance to my parents, as I think Brian and Monica do. 

And no, I didn’t read Stanislavski, but I did read Meisner’s On Acting, less out of some belief that it could teach me anything about acting than out of curiosity about a particular way of thinking about performance. Maybe it’s a quaint thing to say, but I have great admiration for what actors do, for the concentration and continuous physical and emotional upkeep that’s demanded on them. 

But the way I direct actors hasn’t changed, I don’t think. I did find that some actors were much more invested in the psychological or emotional reasoning behind their actions or statements. That’s not to say that I was asked by the cast to give their characters rich inner lives or something, but it wasn’t unusual for an actor to want to know why I asked for a line to be delivered in certain way, or why I wanted them to enter the room more slowly, for example. Sometimes an actor would propose a different way of doing things, or they’d do something that I hadn’t though about before but that, in the end, was better-suited to the needs of the scene.

There’s a shot early in the film, when Richard is still living with his parents. An older man playing Richard’s father is seated at the kitchen table working through a plate of pasta. Richard is looking at him and asks, “Why don’t you thank mom?” It’s a close-up of Brian. He’s watching his father, he’s in front of a wall, his forehead is tilted down a bit and his eyes are looking forward (at his father, presumably). It’s probably the one time in the film where an actor is doing something very similar to what the actors have done in Notes on an Appearance, Spiral Jetty, Six Cents in the Pocket, where we see an actor be that controlled in the delivery of a line. And I thought it was very important at that moment in the film that that kind of performance style come through. Brian is someone who had seen Notes on an Appearance and quite liked it. He responded to that film in a way I didn’t expect him to. But he said, “I understand what you’re trying to do with me here, but can I give you a few different things? Then you can ultimately decide what you want to do.” Thereafter, I trusted Brian. I said, “I’m not going to ask you to deliver it in this way, I’m not going to give you a line reading. I’m going to allow you to do what your instincts tell you.”

Filmmaker: A new element in the film that relates to all this is in the Christmas scene, in which the family gathers to open their gifts. These are long interactions, with overlapping dialogue and multiple naturalistic performances happening at the same time as a voiceover. I’m wondering how you thought through all that in terms of directing them, and if you thought about how long they might need to go on for in relation to the voiceover. I don’t know if you read the voiceover out to see how what the timing of those scenes might be like.

D’Ambrose: I did find myself occasionally reading out the voiceover narration when it occurred over a zoom shot. There is a shot of this character, John Menlo, a business associate of Richard Damrosch’s, counting money. The shot begins at a close-up of his hand counting the money on the table and slowly zooms out to reveal both of them, and that had to be timed to the voiceover. So yes, in that case, while it’s being shot, I’m reading it to make sure the speed of the zoom is such that it allows that to be possible.

But regarding the voiceover over the Christmas Eve or Christmas night: that take was about eight minutes. And I did that not because I wanted it to last eight minutes of the film, but because we had prepared gifts for them. I mean, I had set up a whole little scenario for them. And I figured, “This is so wonderful to watch. I’m just going to let them go and do what they feel that they can do for as long as possible until they finish opening all of their gifts. And I want to be able to select the most interesting part to pair with the voiceover.” But I wasn’t reading it aloud during that time. I was so transfixed watching the monitor, because here I was—sitting in the house I grew up in, that my father still lives in, watching people dressed as my relatives in the same spot in this apartment they were in the VHS tape from 1988 doing the same thing. It’s a ghostly thing, not a thing any healthy person should ever want to go through. But why not let the repressed be returned by watching it on a monitor for eight minutes?

Filmmaker: When the Venice Biennale College accepted the project, you knew that you were moving towards production, and their timeline is very precise. You’re obligated to shoot and deliver a cut by a certain time. As I understand it, there’s very little wiggle room. You had to both adjust to the reality of working on a larger production while navigating that, and also do that against the background of what has been referred to often as the COVID of it all, which is not an ideal grounding for that experience to unfold against. How did you navigate all that?

D’Ambrose: Of the dozen projects that the Venice Biennale College accepts for its workshop track each year, four are awarded the production grant. Given the odds, I don’t think Graham and I felt especially pressured to consider how demanding—if not impossible—it would be to shoot such an ambitious thing with less than $200,000. Being given the grant was disillusioning. As we soon learned, between 15 and 20 percent of the 150,000 euro grant would need to be spent on weekly COVID testing. In SAG’s pandemic-era tier system, certain members of the cast and crew get tested more frequently than others, depending on who they interact with and how often. Given how difficult it would have been to totally separate the cast from the crew, everyone would need to be tested every 72 hours.  

Leaving that aside: one of the first things I did was email [Filmmaker editor-in-chief] Scott Macaulay, because I needed a line producer on this film. It was clear to me that I didn’t have the wherewithal to oversee by myself a film of this scale. Graham at the time was, and still is, living in Iowa. I didn’t have any idea of who to turn to for doing something like scouting locations on Long Island for all the houses and restaurants. There was going to be a scene in a hotel that was supposed to take place in the Bahamas. Having grown up in Long Island, it’s one thing to say. “I’m going to shoot some of this in my father’s home,” because I have access to it, but that didn’t solve the problem of the 12 other locations, or however many other there are supposed to be. 

Scott put me in touch with someone who wasn’t available, but they referred me to a line producer named Richard D’Angelo—an oddly fitting name, given all the Richards involved in this film. Richard D’Angelo is a working line producer, who had worked on one of Tim Sutton’s last films, who lives on, and who knows, Long Island quite well. It was very clear from the beginning that this was someone who was incredibly knowledgeable about a domain of film production that I never had to be concerned with. Having someone like that involved at the early stage allowed things to be set up in such a way that the film could go forward, He brought on a locations scout. He functioned as a location manager. He brought in students that he had taught as a filmmaking teacher to function as PAs and an intern. The locations scout started in late winter, early spring, and I don’t want to underestimate how important that was in terms of the scale of the film, getting all these locations. 

Once all that started coming together, I felt more at ease, and it was easier for me to organize things in the way that I’ve done for my own films, because someone was taking care of this really significant portion of the film, and also contracting with a COVID testing agency. My tendency to want to create spreadsheets, and lots of folders and Dropbox files—sometimes to the consternation of the people I work with—was especially important. I mean, when I hired the costume people, I did a version of what they would have done, which was create a breakdown of all of the wardrobe changes by character. I thought that this was something they were going to ask me to do. When I gave it to them, they were surprised a filmmaker would do that. I just thought that that’s how it should be done, that I should do that myself. But I enjoy that aspect of filmmaking, so having a line producer there to get the infrastructure in place, paired with my own love of spreadsheets, really helped make a shoot during a pandemic. Although I will say, as painful as it was to have to siphon off money for COVID testing because of SAG’s rules, I was fortunate to shoot the film before the onset of Delta, before Omicron. There was a very real fear we would have to shut down because someone would test positive, and therefore we wouldn’t have money to hold people for the two-week isolation period and would have to go to Venice and say, “We can’t finish this movie now, can we do it in the fall?” I’m glad we didn’t do that, but the risk of it was much lower than it would’ve been if I had shot it now.

Filmmaker: Yeah, you’re very lucky. There’s two other large and new elements. One, which goes away as the film goes along and your avatar grows up, are shots of shadows and light from the very young Jesse’s perspective. These moments of reflection are the closest the film gets to allowing itself to be a purely abstract film. Children don’t have much to do but sit and look at light in a way that almost makes them ideal audiences for hardcore arthouse cinema. These are also things that you could shoot yourself in a mode that’s much more intimate and familiar to you. The other new element is the archival footage, which in part functions as a timeline. 

D’Ambrose: American audiences in particular will recognize the World Trade Center bombing—although I was surprised by how the number of people who thought that was footage from 2001 and not 1993, even though it’s snowing. But yes, you’re right, they do serve as markers. If you’re an American audience of a certain age, you have memories of these things. You know that this is the early ’90s, you know what Hurricane Katrina was, you know where we are. But besides that, these function for me in the same way that the flickering light does, which is that they are equally sense impressions. Images from television, from news, from B-roll stuff that I saw as a kid are just as indiscriminate, ghostly or mysterious as the shots of light or shadows.

I didn’t want to do the greatest hits of the ’90s and 2000s. I could’ve had OJ Simpson’s Bronco chase if I wanted that—which I have no relationship to at all, because it never was something that I had any exposure to as a kid. I don’t even have memories of people talking about that. But I remember people coming out of the smokey building with soot on their faces in the snow in New York City. And that is part and parcel with what I think Jesse is experiencing along with all the other parts of his life, whether it be the flickers on the wall or what have you. 

Filmmaker: It’s resistant towards the tendency towards millennial nostalgia.

D’Ambrose: If I really wanted to do something like that, I could have had the production designer and the hair and makeup team play cynically into what people expect the ’80s and ’90s to look like.

Filmmaker: Big hair, conspicuously dated fashions.

D’Ambrose: It was important that it be much more subtle than that, that this not be a movie about the way people dressed. It’s there, yes, because a lot of it is based on the way my parents dressed in photographs at the time, but I never wanted it to be like the hair salon scene in Married to the Mob or something.

Filmmaker: Once you understand that the archival will be a regular, recurring element, you start asking yourself questions about what’s going to be included. But it’s clear that it’s not a sardonic intervention that comes in and resets everything and creates a much more important, urgent, political narrative.

D’Ambrose: No, although you can’t deny that these events I selected that run parallel with the timeline of the family are all disastrous. That wasn’t by design. It was actually a surprise to me, when it was pointed out to me that this is a portrait of America as a disaster state. Again, that’s not intentional, but there was a moment—toward the end of the film’s chronological life—at the mid-2000s—when the table was set, so to speak, for some of the disasters we are now living with, or that we’ve had to live through over the past four to five years. In the Bill Clinton statement, “We are fortunate to be alive at this moment in history”—when will we ever hear a president say such a thing, and mean it, and have the chamber fill with applause after? I don’t know if that will ever happen again in this country. You can say that Bill Clinton was full of shit and that terrible things were underway, and that is true, but nonetheless, the climate of exuberance of the end of the Cold War—the idea that America is no longer at peril, that we are safe in a way that we’ve never been, that our generation won’t know war or recession—left an impression on me as a child. When 9/11 happened, that was the great moment that I first realized that other people do not like America, and that the country I lived in could possibly be at war. I had no memory of the Gulf War, really. In fact, when I used to hear about the Gulf War in middle school, it seemed very quaint that I was alive when America was at war in the early ’90s. It just seemed like an anomaly. 

Filmmaker: So, this whole thing about the autobiographical elements. Of course, you have the right to say, “It’s not a one-to-one relationship to my family. That’s a springboard towards art that I’ve created out of it.” But you shot in your parents’ home, and you’ve certainly poked the bear within the narrative of the film itself by having character’s name be almost exactly your own. 

D’Ambrose: To me, it’s not something that I would think about including in the logline festival catalogue copy I’m asked to provide—that this is the filmmaker’s childhood fictionalized or autobiographical film. Granted, that kind of copy has been proposed to me by festival programmers, and they ask me to approve it, and I invariably say, “This is not what this movie is ultimately about. It’s not a coming-of-age story. I don’t want people to think that this is strictly a movie about the filmmaker as a young man and that this is what’s the most interesting component of it.” But I would lie to you if I said that my childhood has no bearing on this film, or that I didn’t put in a great deal of thought and effort to include the things I remember from my childhood. I’d be lying if I said that the cast wasn’t costumed or outfitted in the way that my parents were or my family was in videos and photographs. And I would be lying if I said, “It’s really not important that we shoot in my father’s home or I spent my first 10 years of my life continuously.” So, I can’t deny those things. They were there from the get go. 

The idea for this film came from an especially sad funeral. My first funeral as an adult took place during the winter recess of my first year of college, when I had to be witness to my my maternal grandmother and her sister not able to reconcile after many years of hostility while their mother was being buried. And it occurred to me for the first time that the people I grew up around and the conflicts I took for granted among those people had histories to them, and they struck me as reprehensible—I think because I was witnessing this for the first time after having lived away from home. I was in Chicago for a semester. I was establishing a sense of independence, my politics had formed, the things I cared about were forming. And there I was, returning home with a new vantage point or perspective on these people at a funeral. That’s when I thought, “One day I would like to make a film that includes some of these relationships and people. And it won’t be a coming-of-age thing.”

Filmmaker: So, after Venice, you’re US premiering, as it were, at Sundance. Where does the film live in the world for you now? Aside from the hope of securing distribution and handing the film over to other people to take care of, what do you expect or foresee or hope for from this immediate next month?

D’Ambrose: Well, expecting the film to get distribution is not nothing. It would be great. Hopefully it plays other festivals as well. But I would prefer not to be in a position as a filmmaker where I forget what it is that made me want to make films in the first place. It’s very easy if you’re prone to falling to pieces when people say nice things about you, to get a little distracted and lost in things that are, at face value, achievements. Sundance admittedly never was part of my fantasy image of what a filmmaker was. I always thought that being in the main slate at the New York Film Festival was the pinnacle of achievement as a filmmaker. You look skeptical, Vadim, but that was the case.

Filmmaker: I’m just really curious to see where this is going.

D’Ambrose: Sundance never factored into this fantasy. But nonetheless, Sundance to me is something that could be beneficial to the film. It could be beneficial to me as a filmmaker who wants to make other narrative films. It has given me a credential—as Berlin has given me a credential, as New Directors has given me a credential—to bargain for getting another film made. Those are nice things. They are laurels. They give you a sense of confidence as a filmmaker which, depending on who you are, you may or may not need. 

I admire someone like Kelly Reichardt among American filmmakers working today. She makes the films, presumably, she wants to make. They have a certain integrity. I think she is someone who is working on things she cares about. I know her films are often very difficult to finance and to make. But her films have an audience. I’ve gotten to a point I think where I’d like people to see my films, but I don’t want to change the things about filmmaking that excite me most in order to play into those seductions. These are things confronting me for the first time as a filmmaker, where I’m being approached by people because of Sundance, and I’m having to think about these things in a way I never had to before. So what’s next is, I want to be able to continue to make the films I want to make on my terms, and I want them to be seen. For a number of years, it seemed that if I were going to make films and they were going to be seen, it would be limited. And I took great pride in that. I thought it would be limited to that 24, 50, 100 people, and that if they walk out of the film, then that’s fine. It’s still fine if people walk out—people walked out at Venice, by the way. But I think I’ve realized that having an audience is not something I want to take for granted. There’s no shame in wanting an audience outside of academics and cinephiles.

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