MATT D’ELIA’S “AMERICAN ANIMAL”
Screening Times: Monday March 14th, 6:30pm (State Theatre), Tuesday March 15th, 11:00am (Alamo Lamar A), Friday March 18th, 6:30pm (State Theatre)
In the dark comedy American Animal, a delusional, terminally ill young man (director, writer, editor and star Matt D’Elia) spends a long, booze and drugs-fueled night with his soon to be relocating roommate (Brendan Fletcher) as they prepare to take vastly different paths in life and death.
Filmmaker: How did you first conceive of the character of Jimmy? Did you always intend to play him yourself?
D’Elia: Like American Animal‘s lead character, Jimmy, I was also very ill in my early twenties. Bedridden and alone, it was easily the worst time of my life. Days felt like weeks, weeks felt like months, months felt like years. Forced to come up with something to do, some way to feel at least slightly better, I began to tell myself these fun, weird little lies to get through each day. It was pure escapism, plain and simple. I’d tell myself, “Yes, my dog can talk,” or “Yes, I’m Dean Martin today,” or “Yes, I’m Chevalier de Balibari from Barry Lyndon this evening,” or some other playful, silly thing like that. Of course, I didn’t actually believe these things, but they made me feel a little better and they passed the time, which is what mattered most during that period of my life. And this kind of imaginative, unshackled, thinking led to me coming up with the character of Jimmy. Unlike myself, Jimmy was terminally ill and, most importantly, he actually did believe the crazy things he told himself. A conflicted character like that — a young man who threw aside his grim reality in the name of a better, imagined one — was very exciting to me. He seemed like the perfect lead character for my first feature film, so I wrote a script centered around him.
By the time we were in prep, I had it in my head that the only actors who could pull off this wild, complex, tragic, hilarious young man were the great young ones that we’ve all come to know as the bright stars of the new generation. Ryan Gosling, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Andrew Garfield, maybe a few others. But when those actors’ agents weren’t calling me back, I had to change my mind! Still, I knew that the movie would live or die by the performance of whoever played Jimmy, so I was in a real pickle. I knew I needed a great actor, but a great actor wasn’t going to do it! And at a certain point we just needed to cast someone — great or not — because our start date was fast approaching. Since I wasn’t prepared to let some random actor who I didn’t believe in carry the weight of the film, I finally decided to play Jimmy myself. My thinking was this: if someone untested was going to be given the responsibility of ruining or not ruining my first film, I much preferred it to be me. Anyway, I like to think that I didn’t ruin the film at all, that it worked out, but I really can’t tell anymore. When watching the movie, I’m not only dissecting and scrutinizing the shot selection, composition, framing, writing, etc, but I’m also thinking, “Oh god, why did I say that like that?”… It’s brutal. The writer/director in me critiques the actor in me nonstop. And at the same time, the actor in me is wondering why the hell I wrote it and shot it the way I did. Watching the film, I can do no right. But I’m definitely proud of it. It’s the film I set out to make. And I do have enough objectivity to sit back and say, “Yes, this film absolutely deserves to be seen.” But that’s just about the extent of my objectivity!
Filmmaker: Who was most instrumental in getting the picture financed and produced after you had written the film?
D’Elia: I raised the financing for American Animal in the most old-school way imaginable: through family and friends. Some put in a little, some put in a lot, but every single penny was raised through either a family member or a close friend. I am forever grateful to these people. They expressed their belief in me and my film with actual money. That’s really something, especially these days. I’m beyond honored, and can only hope they watch the film and think it was money well spent.
As far as the actual producing of the film…My producing partner Julian King was instrumental in making me think it was a good idea to make American Animal. Up until he read the script, I thought it was just this crazy thing I’d written that would absolutely never, ever get made. Never ever. But he read it and said, ‘Let’s make it, huh?’ and I couldn’t exactly figure out why or how to say no to that question, so we made it.
Filmmaker: What were your biggest challenges when constructing the film in post-production?
D’Elia: Editing the film was actually a whole lot of fun. That surprised me. I’ve always dreaded editing, and I thought that editing my own movie — especially since it was my first feature — would be quite miserable and tedious. But it wasn’t. Julian King (producer, cinematographer, co-editor) and I had a great time cutting the film. I was happy to take an axe to whatever wasn’t working, so we were able to really get into a groove, and we very quickly came up with the 95-minute cut that we have now. The sound mixing and color-correction went smoothly and zipped by as well. We finished post in six months. I wish I had something more interesting to say here for this question, but I don’t! Post-production on American Animal was a nice and easy experience. I’m sure this will be the last time I’ll be able to honestly say this, but it’s true: post was fun.
Filmmaker: Where were you and how did you react when you were told you’d been accepted to SXSW?
D’Elia: I was home, feeding my dogs. I have three of them, so feeding them is quite an ordeal. Anyway, I was in the middle of doing this — dogs barking, salivating, jumping all over me, desperately wanting the food in their bellies as opposed to my hands — when my phone rang and a 512 number popped up onto the screen. Without thinking, I answered. It was Janet Pierson. She told me that she wanted to invite American Animal to compete in SXSW’s 2011 Narrative Competition, and I immediately yelled my favorite expletive as loudly and giddily as I possibly could, followed by an apology for shouting my favorite expletive as loudly and giddily as I possibly could directly into her ear. I’ll never forget her response. She laughed and said, ‘No, don’t apologize. That’s what we want to hear.’ I thought that was perfect. I knew right then… SXSW was the best possible place for American Animal.
Filmmaker: Are you planning to do any DIY promotion or distribution with the film?
D’Elia: I’ll be promoting heavily at the festival, but as far distribution is concerned… I’m not planning anything like that right now. I want to see what happens at the festival and take it from there.
Filmmaker: Any other projects in the pipeline?
D’Elia: I’ve got a few projects lining up now, but the very next thing I’m doing is a neo-western/thriller that I’ve written and am set to direct. It’s a crime film set in Texas circa the Vietnam War, a particularly violent time in the state’s history. But it’s contained. It’s not some huge, sprawling action film. It’s basically American Animal, but with guns and cowboy hats. And blood. A bit of blood, too. The title is Hell’s Bells and Buckets of Blood, so yeah… Doesn’t really work without the blood.