“I Just Don’t Think Nice People Are Interesting”: Kit Zauhar on Actual People
Kit Zauhar, the writer-director-star of her debut feature Actual People, does not want you to refer to her film as “mumblecore.” Set in New York City, the plot revolves around the near-daily indignities suffered by a young woman named Riley during her last week of undergrad at NYU: she runs into a cheating ex, roommate tensions come to a head and her ability to graduate becomes increasingly uncertain. Above all, she’s consumed by a crush she harbors for a fellow Philly native she recently hooked up with, traveling to her hometown in a desperate attempt to seduce him. Predictably, nothing quite works out the way Riley hopes, yet her missteps are just as integral to her maturation as her successes.
While Zauhar visibly cringes at the mumblecore comparison, the 26-year-old filmmaker is explicit about how the American indie genre (as well as the films of Hong Sang-soo) were vital in shaping her low-budget, semi-autobiographical exploration of a character she considers deeply unlikeable. In fact, the filmmaker is so intrigued by grating, oft-deplorable characters that she programmed a series at Brooklyn’s BAM Cinema dedicated to them. Fittingly titled “The Unlikables,” the series (which concludes this evening with a screening of Todd Solondz’s Happiness) features many films directed by women who are similarly fascinated in depicting unsympathetic people: Maren Ade’s The Forest for the Trees, Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl, the Diablo Cody-penned Young Adult, Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid. Zauhar also tossed some seminal male indie filmmakers into the mix, with Lawrence Michael Levine’s Gabi on the Roof in July, Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding and Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act having screened this past weekend. While she notes that “people of color don’t really have the tendency to be cast as really horrifying, unlikeable characters,” her series proves that, at least along gender lines, women have managed to achieve a certain unlikeable status.
Filmmaker spoke to Zauhar at a New York City cafe ahead of the release of Actual People, which opens at BAM on November 18.
Filmmaker: Can you take me on a journey, timeline-wise, from the film’s conception to completion?
Zauhar: I started writing it right after college. Basically, I knew that I wanted to make a feature film. I didn’t see my career getting the momentum it needed if I just kept doing short films. I knew that no one was really going to give me the money, so I turned to early American indie auteurs and Hong Sang-soo as inspiration for how to make a feature film for very little money. My first job out of school was working on a TV show for Zosia Mamet and Evan Jonigkeit. They were kind enough to loan me a bunch of equipment, so that’s how I was able to keep production costs incredibly low. I just filmed for ten days over the course of the summer of 2019.
Last year, I started Columbia’s MFA program for non-fiction. I was having a crisis of artistic identity and didn’t really know where my life was going, so I did the really cliche thing of going back to grad school. I really didn’t like Columbia, honestly. It wasn’t worth the money or my time.
I was getting somewhere with Actual People—with editing it, at least—then the pandemic happened, so all my classes went to Zoom and I also started receiving a lot of unemployment money. I used the unemployment to basically fund the post-production process of the film. I had everything ready with the intent of submitting it to Locarno. I didn’t know what my chances were, but I sent them the trailer and I was like, “I can’t afford the submission fee, but if you like what you’re seeing, can you give me one?” And they did. They were in touch with me fairly quickly about basically holding tight and not submitting anywhere else for a while. I found out in May or June of 2021 that I had gotten in.
The nitty-gritty production-wise was ten pretty fun but harrowing, sweaty, stressful days of shooting in New York and then Philly. Post-production was an incredibly arduous process of just editing bit by bit: finding songs we could use, creating a strong structural narrative foundation from the footage we had and rebuilding a story. It was like building a house incredibly slowly.
Filmmaker: You started writing the script after college, and I would like to know on a deeper level what may have prompted—
Zauhar: How autobiographical was it?
Zauhar: Honestly, not that much of what happened in the film happened to me. I like to say that the narrative foundation is the same, the bones of it, but the flesh and other factors aren’t. Basically, during my last week of NYU I was seeing this guy from Philly and losing my mind. I went back to Philly as this last-ditch attempt to woo him, but it went so terribly and was this utter moment of humiliation. When I was writing the film, I knew I wanted this to happen, but I had to create a bunch of obstacles for the character along the way: getting kicked out of her apartment, failing a class. Those things are completely made up.
Filmmaker: You previously mentioned Hong Sang-soo, and I’ve also heard you use “mumblecore” as a pejorative, but your film definitely calls back to that genre of indie filmmaking, especially in New York City. In fact, the film’s logline calls it “mumblecore for people of color.” I’d love to know where you found inspiration in this genre and outside of it, as well as how you incorporated them into your own storytelling practice.
Zauhar: I honestly wish I’d never used that word. I think my film has a clearer narrative structure. There’s an anti-hero’s journey of sorts. But I did take from mumblecore in the sense that it is the blueprint in terms of how they use dialogue to tell a story and motivate action. Everything revolves around conversation. That’s something that Hong Sang-soo and [Ryûsuke] Hamaguchi are also interested in. Rohmer and French movies are just horny people talking, essentially. I think mumblecore was just a tidy way to talk about the film and contextualize it. Honestly, if I’d known how many people would reference it as such, I probably would have stayed away from it. You live and you learn.
Filmmaker: How did you navigate directing yourself, your sister and other people in the film who you may have already had personal connections to?
Zauhar: I always knew I wanted to be in it and that my sister would be in it. Vivian has a very special disposition of being self-aware, but also not giving a fuck. [Casting my sibling] was also an homage to Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture.
I acted before I started making movies, so it’s always been something I wanted to pursue. I’m ethnically ambiguous to the point where I can’t really audition for Asian roles. I obviously can’t be cast as the daughter of two white people, either. If there aren’t roles being made for you, make the role for yourself. Because a lot of the cast are my friends—non-actors I kind of roped into being part of the project—there’s not this weird anxiety about performing. It feels like a natural, fluid, comfortable, familiar process for them.
In terms of directing myself, it just comes to me naturally. I’m as self-conscious as any young woman is, but I like the process of directing myself because you throw your ego to the side. You’re just like, “OK, this is what I look like. Let’s do it.” It’s interesting to have your body and face serve a story that’s bigger than your feelings about yourself. I also put a lot of trust in my cinematographer. People don’t trust their DPs enough. Unless you make them hate you, they’re not going to try and make you look bad.
Filmmaker: I want to talk about how you captured the feeling of being in New York versus Philly. Your character’s life in New York is full of these long, languid days of existential anguish. When you’re in Philly, it feels more like a runaway train.
Zauhar: I think seeing Valerie sparks Riley to confront her immaturity, because suddenly she has this foil in front of her: someone that she’s supposed to protect, be a role model for and have her shit together in front of. If you’re in a video game, Philly is where all the bosses appear that you have to contend with.
Filmmaker: You’ve already mentioned Tiny Furniture, but what other reference points did you use to build this film?
Filmmaker: I was hoping you’d mention a film that you programmed as part of the BAM series you programmed, “The Unlikables.” I’m curious, would you consider the protagonist in your film unlikable?
Filmmaker: What about that is compelling for you to depict?
Zauhar: I just don’t think nice people are interesting on camera. I think art is meant to reflect the worst parts of yourself back to you. Unlikable characters can make you a better, and I think more empathetic, person in real life. The function of a lot of really great art is to make you confront brutality and cruelty, so that you can walk out into the world and be a little bit more conscious of horrible things that are happening, maybe even inside of you.
From an acting perspective, everyone always wants to play the villain. No one has fun playing the angel. I was also interested in this idea about how people of color don’t really have the tendency to be really horrifying, unlikable characters. I mean, people of color can also be really horrible! It’s not like we’re exempt from it.
Filmmaker: You claim this character is unlikable, but I think that for a lot of people—especially New Yorkers our age—it’s probably going to feel like the character is more relatable than unlikable. For example, the series you programmed features Todd Solondz’s Happiness. Nobody is going to go to bat for any of those characters, right? With your film, that unlikability feels less icky to claim and associate with.
Zauhar: Yeah, I think that’s because she’s going to grow up. It’s a growing pain, you know? That’s why I really love Insecure, because the characters were just being really intimately awful to one another. But they can grow, and they can also fail again. I always want to see more of that narrative for people of color, otherwise the expectation—not only from society, but from art—is that you’re not allowed to fail.
Filmmaker: The idea of growing doesn’t necessarily seem to be one that a lot of people can currently latch onto.
Zauhar: I think that for white people that’s definitely becoming more true. I also want to be careful about how I talk about it, because I’m white passing. I don’t even look as Asian as my little sister, who’s had to contend with a lot more upfront racism. Sometimes I call myself a spy for Chinese America, like that scene in Actual People where Riley’s coworker is saying something racist but doesn’t even comprehend that he’s saying it to someone of that culture.
Everything is just kind of weird right now. Everyone is really afraid to be wrong. I just think that everyone needs to be a little bit more compassionate. I don’t think it’s good to be angry as a response to everything. There is a lot of anger inside of me, and a lot of anger inside the characters, but I don’t ever want it to feel unjustified. That’s something I’m interested in exploring, both as an actor and a director.
Filmmaker: Last week, you told me that you were currently editing something. Can you speak to what you’re working on?
Zauhar: Yeah, it’s my second feature, which is actually picture locked right now. It’s called This Closeness. It’s all set in one location, about a couple that stays at an apartment rental. Their host is this lonely, reclusive, strange guy. It’s about their dynamic over the course of a weekend: territory, masculinity, becoming a voyeur and privy to other people’s personal lives. “A war of attrition” is what someone else has said. I act in it again, as well.
Filmmaker: Is there anything else about Actual People that feels important for you to highlight?
Zauhar: I didn’t want to just sit around and wait until I was 30 for someone to give me money when I “deserve” it, because I think I did deserve it from the outset. I think having this film do so well while being made for $10,000 proves that. I don’t want to sound crass, but a feature is gonna get you way farther than most of the short films you will ever make. I’m a completely different person now than when I first shot this film. It helped me grow up, which I desperately needed to do.