SLAMDANCE: “ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE UNDEAD'”S JORDAN GALLAND By Alicia Van Couvering
Up there with Snakes On A Plane in the pantheon of catchy titles, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead is a horror-comedy about Hamlet and the Holy Grail premiering in Slamdance this year. The movie stars Jake Hoffman, Devon Aoki, Jeremy Sisto, John Ventimiglia, Ralph Maccio and Waris Ahluwalia and was only the second East Coast feature film to use the Red camera.
The film’s director, Jordan Galland, is a New York-bred renaissance man with deep and varied interests. At age eighteen, Jordan Galland started a band, Dopo Yume, which toured the world with Cibo Matto and Rufus Wainwright, and he has collaborated on other music projects with everyone from Sean Lennon to Mark Ronson. He has made several award-winning music videos, and his short film, Smile for the Camera, about a cult who uses an antique camera to capture the souls of its victims, won Best Short Film and the New York Film and Video Festival. An animation and mythology major in college, few other directors in Park City this year could claim references to the Ur-Hamlet, Greek drama traditions, Dracula and romantic pop songs equally in what is sure to be an entertaining, endearing hit at the festival and beyond.
Filmmaker: How has the lead-up month before the premiere been like?
Galland: It’s just like with a band — nothing happens until right up against a deadline. You get years to work on something and then suddenly you book a show and suddenly you’re practicing all the time to get ready. When we were accepted we decided to make some small, finessing polishes with the edit, and what’s ironic about making small changes like that if that you have to re-conform the entire movie. But I think it was worth it.
Filmmaker: What are some of the themes of the film – what’s it about?
Galland: Well, because it deals with Hamlet, there’s a lot of ‘to be or not to be’ stuff, [ideas about] acting – what’s real and what’s theatre; how does art imitate life; what’s autobiography and what’s fiction, and how to they play off each other. Then there are vampires and their metaphors – the seduction of romantic relationships in our lives, which are both attractive and bad for us, and how they suck the life out of you. I found that all these elements kind of resonated from the funny title I came up with, which I had made up when I was twelve, loved the book of Dracula, and read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for the first time.
Filmmaker: Where did the idea come from to make a Hamlet vampire movie?
Actually Hamlet is very compatible with vampire mythology. Howard Bloom writes about it a little bit. His age is inconsistent throughout the play, and vampires, they’re gonna lie about their age. And there’s a scene where Hamlet says “now I could drink hot blood.” I’m not saying that Shakespeare was writing Hamlet as a vampire, but I’m also not ruling that out as a possibility. In college I studied a lot of that stuff – conspiracy theory, the holy grail. There were originally two versions of Hamlet: something called the Ur-Hamlet, which was another version –there’s a mystery around that text already, so I thought it would be fun to explore. Obviously there’s a limit to the amount of that you can do in a romantic comedy.
Filmmaker: How do song writing and filmmaking relate to each other?
I guess somehow, my affinity for writing about romantic relationships in pop song format came through when I developed [this concept] this into a modern love story. At the risk of sounding too serious about it, in songwriting you have to distill the essence of what you feel into just a few words, and at the same time come up with something catchy. I think a lot of the scenes between Jake and Devon are similar in that way – distilled moments from a relationship. I suppose that writing songs helped me take this really obscure vampire-hamlet thing that I was thinking about and root it in something that had real emotion, real heart… something we could all relate to.
Filmmaker: So obviously music must have been an important part of the movie…
Galland: Sean Lennon wrote the music. He and I played in each other’s bands and have worked together a lot on each other’s music. So I knew that Sean and I had the same musical vocabulary in terms of composers that we loved — we had bonded over like hundreds of those old albums by Ennio Morricone, Nino Rota and Wendy / Walter Carlos. It’s very cinematic – we didn’t make an indie rock soundtrack. He’s got his Sean Lennon spooky pop sensibility with a lot of really sophisticated instrumentation.
Filmmaker: What kind of film experience did you have before you started?
Galland: I’ve made two short films and written a bunch of screenplays – one is the adaptation of “Coin Locker Babies,” which I co-wrote with Michele Civetta over a long time and is in pre-production. I stopped [my band] Dopo Yume to make Smile for the Camera, a 30-minute sort of horror-comedy, experimental, super-low budget film that I did everything on – I lit it, I shot it, I did the sound, I wrote the music. Working on a film is intense, but it’s also really fun, because it’s much more conducive to my obsessive-compulsive behavior. When you have a band, everything’s sort of like ‘ah man just chill out, we’re in a bar,’ it’s about the fun and the lifestyle, no one wants you to be obsessive, whereas on a film you can’t be too obsessive. I found people saying like, ‘Wow, you’re such a laid back director,’ and I was very surprised by that, because I had always felt so insane. I’m one of those people who will wake up in the middle of the night, remember something that someone was supposed to do and text them about it. If you do that in real life, people get really annoyed, but if you do that when you’re on a film, people are thrilled and think you’re doing a great job.
Filmmaker: How did the cast come together?
Galland: I knew Jake [Hoffman] from NYU and I brought him in for a table reading we did, and he brought something that I hadn’t anticipated to the character, which is that the character became adorable. He was always funny, but Jake brought this sort of sweetness, and so he was cast in the role. With Ralph Maccio, I was watching My Cousin Vinny for the 20th time, and I was like, ‘What’s stopping me from making an offer to Ralph Maccio?’ Eve Battaglia, our casting director, did an amazing job figuring out the puzzle of putting together a true ensemble. The movie delves into a Mafia kind of place, and then a Waiting for Guffman, almost goofy kind of place, and then a conspiracy-Da Vinci Code place, which is what I wanted.
Filmmaker: What was it like shooting on the RED camera?
Galland: We were the second feature on the East Coast to shoot on the Red, so we were sort of on the cutting edge of what it meant to put effects on Red footage, and put it back into After Effects and then into Scratch, the program we color corrected and did the conform on. Because the movie was about something historical and empirical, I felt like the Hi-Def look, which was all that would have been affordable before the Red, would have made it much harder to capture the world we intended to create. So the Red was amazing timing for us, because without it this would not have been the same film.
Filmmaker: What part of directing a feature surprised you the most?
Galland: I never pretended that I knew something if I didn’t know, and I had a lot of really skilled advisors around me. But you learn to trust your instincts — sometimes everybody would tell me something and I’d know they were right, and sometimes everybody would tell me something and I’d have to make them listen to me. The whole experience was so exhilarating and insane and passionate. I told any of my friends who were annoyed that I wasn’t around anymore: pretend I’m on a trip to China, because I’m going under for a few months. Of course that has extended to like a year. And now here we are.