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Revisiting Silk Stalkings: Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn on IFFR 2024 Premiere Dream Team

Dream Team

Dream Team, the third feature by Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn, is another in the writer-director duo’s run of genre pastiches that double as sociopolitical parables. Here, the influence of ’90s basic cable TV thrillers is channeled into an episodic story about a pair of Interpol agents (Esther Garrel and Alex Zhang Hungtai) who travel to Mexico to investigate the mysterious death of a corral smuggler. Shot by Horn in characteristically textured 16mm, the film unfolds between a variety of West Coast locales stretching from Baja California to Vancouver. As the body count rises and rumors of a physic coral conspiracy take shape, the detectives find themselves caught in a web of intrigue involving, among other oddball characterizations, a sexually suggestive scientist, a pair of fitness-obsessed interns and an invisible colleague with a vindictive streak.

Like Kalman and Horn’s earlier features L for Leisure (2014) and Two Plains and a Fancy (2018), as well as the medium-length Blondes in the Jungle (2009), Dream Team combines seemingly anachronistic tones and traditions with effortless aplomb. In their own unique way, they’ve become emblems of a kind of 21st century indie cinema that looks and operates entirely by its own logic. With its straight-faced mix of science and eroticism, plus a kitschy score by longtime collaborator John Atkinson and new recruits Excepter (an experimental electronic group whose leader, John Fell Ryan, also features in the film as a neuropsychologist), Dream Team exemplifies the way these filmmakers have managed to simultaneously recast high and lowbrow interests in their own image. Despite living in different cities—Kalman is based in San Diego, while Horn is in San Francisco—there’s a singularity to their vision that makes each film, no matter how strange or exotic, feel part of a unified project.

I sat down with Kalman and Horn on the day of Dream Team’s premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam to discuss the movie’s wide-ranging influences and idiosyncrasies, as well as how the long gestation periods between films has kept their work fresh for over a decade.

Filmmaker: In your 25 New Faces of Independent Film profile from 2014, there’s mention of a movie that you two were wanting to make called Peruvian Bodies, a “sexy detective thriller set in 1996.” Is that this movie?

Whitney Horn: Well, it became this movie.

Lev Kalman: Wow, yeah. Peruvian Bodies was going to be a short and we were going to make it in Peru. But all that changed. We wrote it and it was basically the first thing we’d ever written. We actually had a cast confirmed to do it, but eventually we were like, “Yeah, this isn’t ready.” So, we put it back in the oven for a long time and turned it into the feature that became Dream Team.

Filmmaker: How did the project evolve? The article describes it as being in the vein of Basic Instinct (1992), which is not quite what the film ended up being either.

Kalman: I think Peruvian Bodies was going to be more of a genre spoof than what Dream Team ended up being. The reason we didn’t make it was because we felt it didn’t have a soul. Peruvian Bodies was about aliens, and by the time we came to make this the idea had switched to coral and the logic of psychic coral. Tying together the coral world was what made us see how this project could be possible; it gave us a skeleton that we felt we could grow things onto. For example, the intern characters, and Roger Peniris (John Fell Ryan)—all these other plots that grew onto it were part of us turning the germ of Peruvian Bodies into something weirder and more in keeping in our interests.

Also, because Peruvian Bodies was going to be a short, for a while we were thinking that Dream Team would be a series of webisodes, which is the thing that it now references. But by the time we were actually trying to fundraise, everyone was like, “People don’t make webisodes anymore.” [Laughs] And we realized that we really did want people to see it in a theater. So, I hope that this film doesn’t just still feel like seven webisodes, but more like a film that references a kind of TV structure.

Filmmaker: It seems to reflect how people consume TV nowadays, with no breaks between episodes. 

Kalman: Yeah, there’s kind of like an “Are You Still Watching Thing?” with the credits rolling each time. When the pandemic started, we began watching a bunch of Louis Feuillade and other serials and being like, “Yeah, this is the same energy.” That encouraged us to keep down that path, even though it was no longer going to be webisodes—just having a feeling of like then-what-then-what-then-what with the structure.

Filmmaker: Did you watch the TV version of Irma Vep?

Horn: I got pretty far, but I don’t think I finished it.

Kalman: Yeah, I didn’t finish it either. I should. I keep running into people who are super enthusiastic about it. I love the movie Irma Vep (1996), and Les Vampires (1915-16). Actually, of one our actors, Minh T Mia, took a stage name after another Feuillade movie, Tee Min (1918). 

Filmmaker: There’s been fairly sizable gaps between your three features, at least compared to a lot of other American indie filmmakers. Is that a purely practical decision, or is there more to it? 

Kalman: In some sense we would love to make more. And to make things…

Horn: Faster. [Both laugh]

Kalman: I think that we try to lean into the process. What worked for us with L for Leisure when we didn’t have a lot of money, and what worked for us here, was to write something that could grow and change over the course of us making it. So that taking four years to make something, which is how long Dream Team took, doesn’t just mean us being like, “Alright, what now?,” but instead allows us to feel it getting stranger and developing in different ways as we work. 

Working with an episodic structure, whether in the way we are here or in the way we did in L for Leisure, lets us be like, “Okay, now we have a new iteration, now we have a new group of folks to work with,” and we can build on what works in each iteration, both from a production standpoint and an artistic one. It doesn’t even necessarily mean a ton of rewriting, but it does mean sort of like, “Okay, here are little art directing things that we noticed, or little things that we can be repeating.” There are motifs throughout the film, like splashes on the ground and stuff like that. These are things we came upon by chance and we built on as we went. Having a ton of time allows us to notice these kinds of things and come back to them, even months later. But it’s also just a limitation of fundraising that we can only get together a few thousand dollars at a time and keep working.

Horn: And also, you know, work. 

Kalman: Right. I mean, I’m sure if we had tons of funds we wouldn’t need to be working day jobs.

Filmmaker: I think your features benefit from being spaced out. Having that time between allows them to live in a specific moment. 

Kalman: Yeah, the next couple things that we’re doing are shorts. It’s hard for me to imagine us churning out a feature per year. I feel that we find strength in what our situations are, and in our situation, features take a long time. I think we try to make features that feel like they took a long time. Each film feels like a moment in our development as filmmakers. Each one is a new thing entirely.

Filmmaker: Even though your films are set all over the world, there’s a West Coast sensibility to them that sets them apart from most American indie cinema, and this film, even though a lot of it is set in Mexico, feels like your most Southern California film to date.  

Kalman: A little bit of the joke of the film is that we set it in Mexico and Canada, but a ton of it is shot in San Diego. I work in the film and video department at UC San Diego, so a lot of the decisions came down to distance. 

Filmmaker: Right, I wanted to ask you about the UC San Diego speech that’s in the film. I found it super funny, but I wonder if people outside of Southern California will find the humor in it. 

Kalman: With that speech or just in general, part of the experiment is to see how hyper specific we can get in a way that makes people still feel connected to it. It’s just us taking a moment to get really dense on the history of UC San Diego. But I’m also really curious to see if people, even if they don’t know that world, will still feel like it’s funny and relevant to the rest of the movie.

Filmmaker: How much of it was shot in Mexico?

Kalman: The Rosarito and Tijuana scenes are all pretty much Rosarito and Tijuana.

Horn: Guadalupe too.

Kalman: Yeah. Despite the San Diego stuff, I think we just try to be really specific about the places where our films take place, including not just location details, but vibes.

Filmmaker: I think that’s what sets your films apart from your contemporaries. You work is on its own wavelength. It doesn’t feel like it’s part of a scene. 

Horn: We’re very much not part of the scene.

Kalman: Yeah, even though we kind of came up in New York…

Horn: …we were never really a part of that scene.

Kalman: Right. I think we were a little bit conscious of… not like wanting to not step on toes, but just not recreate what they’re doing.

Filmmaker: There’s nothing very urban about your films.

Kalman: I guess so far we just haven’t been particularly interested in urban spaces. I can’t even think of how to shoot in one. I don’t want to make a New York film, but I don’t want to make a Paris film either.

Horn: We’re not quite city people. [Laughs]

Kalman: As filmmakers, I just don’t think we have a ton to say about or through cities. Blondes in the Jungle was made when we were both living in New York.

Horn: Actually, I moved out of New York during the shoot.

Kalman: Oh right. In any case, that film is set in Honduras.

Horn: But the characters are very New York.

Kalman: Right, the characters are constantly talking about New York.

Horn: That’s our most New York film.

Kalman: For sure. There’s even a flashback to a scene that takes place in the Lower East Side. But after that film we just kind of migrated out.

Horn: Our most New York movie takes place in the jungle. [Laughs]

Filmmaker: Can you talk a little bit about the writing process? Has it developed or evolved at all since the earlier films? Perhaps it’s due to the episodic structure, but Dream Team feels like it may have been more planned out than some of your other films. 

Kalman: Yeah, this one definitely was. It involved some research. Like the speech you mentioned involved us talking to a couple of activists from the ’90s from San Diego, and the coral speech was more or less taken verbatim from a number of interviews we had with a coral scientist. There’s a lot of us trying to get more dense with information while still keeping this sort of weird sexy detective story going. But also just the fact that we’re making a mystery movie means that you have to keep track of threads in a different way.

Filmmaker: No plot holes allowed.

Kalman: Yeah, it’s pretty woven together. We knew when we were writing it that this was a universe that we can come back to, so we don’t want to set up anything for no reason, or set up anything that doesn’t have potential. Even something like the co-ed co-op basketball league—we knew we could write another 45 minutes about them if we needed to.

Filmmaker: How does it work living in separate cities? Do you try to write together in person?

Horn: Yeah. Especially in the early stages, we like to get together to just take a walk and bounce whatever ideas comes up. It’s only later that we do it over Skype, when we need to nail down some of the dialogue or something. But the flow of the ideas tends to be better in person.

Kalman: I don’t think we’ve come up with any good or big story beats over Skype. That tends to be a time for us to go back over our ideas and write them down. A lot of the dialogue is almost like figuring out mechanics—how would this scene work, etc. That’s the kind of problem solving you can do over the phone. But we always try to make trips to get together and, like Whitney said, 90% of those trips are not talking about the movie and then suddenly….

Horn: Suddenly it’ll just come out. And we’ll be like, “Okay, here we go!”

Filmmaker: Were there specific basic cable TV thrillers that you were emulating?

Horn: I mean, Silk Stalkings.

Filmmaker: Yep, that came to mind. 

Kalman: Which I think was filmed in San Diego. 

Filmmaker: Really?

Kalman: I think. I don’t want to get this wrong, but I think our costume designer, Kenny, said that he used to PA for Silk Stalkings, and he’s a San Diego guy.

Filmmaker: I feel like Silk Stalkings left an impression on everyone that grew up in the ’90s. I distinctly remember it coming on at like 9 or 10pm. 

Kalman: Yeah, right before they would transition to playing softcores with the nipples blurred out. [Laughs]

Horn: The opening theme was a huge influence on the whole movie, but the credit sequences in particular. The idea of having this other story going on in the credits that’s not really related to the movie is taken from Silk Stalkings. 

Kalman: I love the credits of that show and how they’re just about the energy of Silk Stalkings and not the characters. There’s also another show from a bit later that I was thinking of called H2O: Just Add Water.

Horn: Was that the mermaid one?

Kalman: Yeah.

Horn: Australian mermaids.

Klaman: Right. We watched it in, like, 2008. It’s an Australian kids show, but about these teen mermaids. Why it reminds me of Dream Team is that it’s mostly this goofy narrative about like, “Oh no, what if our boyfriends find out we’re mermaids?” But then there’s also these lessons about marine biology over the course of the episode. So, kind of in the same way as our Dr. Beef or Roger Peniris characters—inserting these sort of educational moments within this goofier story is something I think we got from H2O.

Filmmaker: Whitney, do you feel like you’re working with 16mm any differently now then when you first starting shooting in the format?

Horn: I’m actually not sure that I work all that differently.

Kalman: You definitely have much more confidence with the camera.

Horn: Yeah, I think I’m just a little bit more comfortable. But I’m not sure that I’ve changed. I guess we got a better camera.

Kalman: Yeah, we got a better camera around the time of Two Plains, and this time you had a gaffer and assistant camera person who were really good and I think they allowed you to be a little bit more ambitious.

Horn: Yeah. And I think the lighting in this one was a much bigger thing. We mostly used natural lighting before.

Filmmaker: Right. This is your first film with any real interiors. 

Kalman: Definitely.

Horn: So that was like a big learning curve for me and I got a lot more comfortable with lighting than I ever have been before. Especially since I don’t really work in film or with film stuff otherwise. Actually, the long production kind of allowed me to get better. [Laughs]

Kalman: Yeah, trying to plan lighting for interiors was new for both of us.

Horn: We were like, “What are we doing!?”

Kalman: But by the end we really had it down.

Horn: Yeah, by then we knew our kit and what we liked.

Filmmaker: How’d you come to cast Esther Garrel and Alex Zhang Hungtai? Is there some conceptual logic behind the pairing?

Kalman: We had these characters in our heads for a really long time and had been looking around for someone to play No (Garrel) for a long time. I think the demands of the film in artistic ways, and also in time ways and just us being older, meant that we can’t just keep continuing to cast our friends. So, we were starting to think of who could really carry these vibes. There’s something totemic about the way we cast the film where you are conscious of them as stars, and you’re reacting to that. I think that’s part of it.

But we just started looking. Alex was in August At Akiko’s (2018). I got to present that film at the San Diego Asian Film Festival. I did the Q&A with him, so I saw it like five times, and he really felt right. There’s something a little bit Keanu Reeves-y about his presence. So, he was kind of anchoring things while we looked for somebody to play No. We sent email after email asking folks who they could possibly think of, then we saw Esther in Nathan Silver’s film The Great Pretender (2018). There was one line in particular that she delivered where we were like, “Okay, we can see her doing comedy.”

Something that we do often, but that we leaned on in Dream Team, was pairing trained actors with non-trained actors, and in particular female trained actors with untrained men. I think you can see that in the film, with the men being sort of stiffer while the women carry the moment. 

Filmmaker: Is this something that was acknowledged or talked about with the actors?

Kalman: There’s always some negotiation. The trained actors are often like, “I want to rehearse this way.” And for non trained actors, sometimes that can excite them, and sometimes that can turn them off. But what I’ve learned in my experience is that every actor is different, and we need to adapt. Unless we were in some situation where we could be like, “We’ll destroy you if you don’t work our way!” But we don’t work that way, and we’re not dicks…

Horn: And we don’t want that kind of power!

Kalman: I know we don’t, but I can imagine a world where someone says, “Well, this is the way I do it.” But for us, we’re more like, “Okay, how do you need it? How do we get this scene to make sense to you, or this performance to make sense to you?” I did a little bit of theater training in school and you learn all these weird things like, “Oh, I’m not supposed to do a reading for this or that.” And then I’ve worked with both trained actors and untrained actors who were like, “Can I just hear it in your voice?”

Horn: “Just tell me how to say it.”

Kalman: Yeah, and sometimes that works and sometimes that completely makes someone shut down. You just have to feel around with every single actor to find which method works for them. So mixing actors in this film was a process of figuring out how we can get them to best work together, and how can we get them to feel like they can open up. You just have to figure out how to balance everybody on the set.

Filmmaker: Did Esther Garrel get the humor and what you guys were going for when she first read the script?

Kalman: She took it very seriously. I mean, we never really ask anyone to sell a joke, and we didn’t ask her to either. We just asked her to lean into the character—like, how is No feeling in this moment? What is she thinking about? Esther always needed us to kind of set it up for her as a fleshed-out character in a serious film. And that’s where the humor comes from in her performance. We have some actors where we can just say, “Make a face.” And they’re like, “Here’s a face!” But for Esther we always had to talk her through the motivation. At one point, we had to release Alex for the day—this was coming out of COVID—but we still had to shoot one of the phone conversations between him and Esther. So, Whitney had to be the one acting those lines back to her, because Esther really needed a performance to work off of.

Horn: I had to hold the camera and read the lines.

Kalman: While close focusing on her lips.

Horn: Yeah, and I have a very hard time remembering lines.

Filmmaker: Tell me about the music. I know you’re worked with John Atkinson before, but Excepter is new, and John Fell Ryan from that group appears in the film.

Kalman: You know what, I think John Fell Ryan and Lala from Excepter first saw our films here in Rotterdam. Not at the festival but at that club WORM. Excepter was performing the same night we had a screening of Blondes in the Jungle there. That’s how they first saw it and they got in touch with us after that. They ended up doing a couple shows where they would play a set and show the film. 

We stayed in touch after that, but during the pandemic we all started an online watch group. We were watching a bunch of David Lynch movies together. John is an incredible thinker about David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick; he did The Shining Forwards and Backwards (2011). So, he was just an amazing person to have in the group chat while we were watching things. He has this mind where we’ll be watching movies and he’ll be pointing at things and naming the colors and creating systems around things like that. 

Horn: John Atkinson was the host of that watch group. 

Kalman: Right. So they were just kind of around our internet spaces. But I can’t remember how we came to ask Excepter to contribute music to the film.

Horn: I think we were talking with John Atkinson about needing some beats or something.

Kalman: Oh right. Yeah, with L for Leisure, John was basically doing pop songs, but in the years since he’s develop his skills as a composer. And there was a moment where we asked him if he could do pop songs for Dream Team, and he was like, “I don’t remember how I did that. I have no idea. I don’t have it anymore.” He ended up agreeing, but he said, “If you need beats, you should maybe ask John Fell Ryan to do that.” So we did. And John has this totally different approach, more like a traditional score composer. So we met with them and divided things up, and they would both contribute elements to each other, but for the most part they were flying solo—or, rather, John and Lala were working together as Excepter, and then John Atkinson was doing his thing. 

Filmmaker: Last thing: can you guys speak to the environmental themes that run through your work? It’s not super prominent, but it leaves a subtle impression, especially when seeing the films in close proximity. 

Kalman: I think it’s there, both metaphorically and in a real sense. There’s something we like about this feeling of inhuman dread, like some sort presence that’s bigger than the narrative, that’s hovering outside of the characters and that’s about to engulf them. It’s the future wars in L for Leisure, the power underground in Two Plains and a Fancy, and the coral in this film.

Horn: And the jungle in Blondes in the Jungle.

Kalman: Exactly. There’s always this force that’s outside of the human stories that’s sort of giving this whole other level or context to them. So it is a specific interest, and it’s not a coincidence that almost all of them are natural type forces. It’s something we feel like we have some cinematic ability to capture—like, we’re good at it. We feel like we can make these spaces significant or even just feel present. We learned a ton about coral through making the film, and how it intertwines with people’s lives. Two Plains is about how the environment is a record of everything that we’re doing in it and to it, and how that in turn shapes what we can do. Dream Team is trying to do the same thing, but in a very postmodern world. 

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