Calvin Lee Reeder, The Oregonian
Since being named one of Filmmaker magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film in 2007, Portland-bred writer-director Calvin Lee Reeder has amassed a small body of impressively uncategorizable work—mostly no-budget shorts like Little Farm, The Rambler, and Snake Mountain Colada—that reveal a taste for the bizarre and beguiling, as well as the shockingly perverse. Prior to making films in earnest, Reeder played guitar with the Lars Finberg–led paranoid post-punk group Popular Shapes (a/k/a The Intelligence) and collaborated with Brady Hall on Jerkbeast, a feature comedy based on a demented, sophomoric public-access program they developed for fun. (Think Morton Downey Jr. meets Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.) That anarchic spirit certainly carried over into the short-form work, as did Reeder’s knack for creating eerie swatches of music and sound design to outfit his surreal stories, but the films became more ambitious, more cinematic, while remaining resolutely strange. Last year, Reeder unveiled his exquisitely twisted, artfully terrifying feature film The Oregonian, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won an Independent Visions Award at the Sarasota Film Festival.
Shot on 16mm and starring Reeder’s frequent collaborator and girlfriend Lindsay Pulsipher (True Blood), the lo-fi horror film is as perverse and creepy as a grainy 70s exploitation flick, tracking the nightmarish journey of a woman who awakens after a car crash to discover two bodies strewn along an empty country road. Bloodied and desperate for help, she wanders away from the site only to be menaced by sonic disturbances, horrifically disturbing flashbacks, and a rogue’s gallery of enigmatic freaks, including a canine-toothed old hippie witch with magical powers, a trio of petrol piña colada-swilling folk musicians, and an unidentified, possibly malicious head case wearing an emerald green fursuit with a drooping monster eye. The film’s nutso-hysteric energy and bumps of road-movie humor — a wheezing, uncommunicative truck driver, when he does speak, is inexplicably obsessed with omelets — give it an increasingly abstract quality, but The Oregonian is internally consistent, even if the loopy, eerie logic it obeys is entirely its own. Referencing Satanism, Nicolas Roeg, coven films, acid-trip B movies, mental-ward escapee flicks, hillbilly horror, and Jodorowsky-grade Western psychedelia without belonging to any genre in particular, and working on a register that’s equally indebted to classic European art film, Reeder’s wickedly brilliant feature is a true oddity that resembles a found art object handcrafted by a lunatic prodigy.
Filmmaker spoke with Reeder about crafting primal stories, experimental approaches to sound design, and the eerie texture of the Pacific Northwest. The Oregonian opens at reRun Gastropub Theater on Friday.
Filmmaker: Have you encountered many films that awakened you to what’s possible in the medium, beyond the obvious?
Reeder: Oh, definitely. There are obvious ones like Stalker and El Topo. I’m a big fan of [Andrzej] Zulawski – it was amazing to see his retrospective because there was a ton of stuff I hadn’t seen. Guys like that have always inspired me. But it was actually [The Catechism Cataclysm director] Todd Rohal’s short films that made me think, Holy shit, I can do whatever I want in movies! [Laughs]
Filmmaker: How do you find a way to make something abstract — an image, an idea –register with an audience?
Reeder: I never know how it’s going to speak to an audience so I never bother myself too much with that. If the audience doesn’t get it, then I guess I’m screwed. [Laughs] I just set out to get what’s in my brain on the screen.
Filmmaker: What appeals to you about horror, then? Does it feel like a purging of something that doesn’t come out otherwise?
Reeder: You know, nothing appeals to me about horror. I think it’s a side product – I don’t watch horror movies very much. I get thrown into [that genre] because of the “midnight movie” category, but El Topo’s got tons of blood and shocking moments, and no one ever calls that a horror movie. I think I’m more in that vein. So what appeals to me about that kind of horror, if you will, is the unpredictability and the true self that can be expressed — a feeling that can be strived for even if it’s never reached.
Filmmaker: You introduce ideas in short films like Little Farm and Snake Mountain Colada that find expression again in The Oregonian. Omelets, for instance.
Reeder: [Laughs] That is purely accidental. But there are things in Snake Mountain Colada where I started an idea and wasn’t really able to complete it until The Oregonian. It’s not a self-referential thing – I just realized there was more I had to say and I wasn’t done with it yet.
Filmmaker: We could play the game of finding all the movie references in The Oregonian, but what I admired was how the film seemed to refract so many kinds of genre films, fantasy, and experimental art without seeming wholly indebted to any of them. When the story is so bent, how does it all coalesce? Does it start off more straightforward on paper or does it come together on the fly?
Reeder: Well, it’s not on the fly, but it’s a little bit of a mixture. My biggest collaborator is my editor, Buzz Pierce, and the first project we worked on together was Snake Mountain Colada. Before I even knew what movie we were making, I told him I had this vision of a man in a furry suit taking a shower. [Laughs] And that got us excited. The movie didn’t flow after that, by any means, but I had this almost inconsequential detail and all this other stuff came with it – this idea of dread, of trying to tap into primitive stuff that’s just beyond our reach. We ignore it, you know. I guess we tried to understand it. A lot of people are pretty confident that they know what’s going on in the world. I’m of the opinion that no one knows, and I just wanted to [represent] that.
Filmmaker: By introducing a character who literally has no idea what’s happening in her world.
Reeder: I think so, yeah. [Laughs] I just wanted to make a place completely unknowable. The things that look familiar suddenly become unfamiliar, but maybe that’s because you’re actually seeing what this is. Instead of a person being able to talk, they just exist in front of you and you have to deal with them at face value.
Filmmaker: And they just might be strumming a guitar.
Reeder: They might be. Guitars don’t lie. [Laughs]
Filmmaker: Is there something inherently creepy or dread-inducing about the Pacific Northwest?
Reeder: Since I’m from there, I guess I don’t think so that much. There is a texture there that’s very real. I live in California now and I’ve been here five years, but I just visited Seattle, and the more time I spend away the more amazed I am at the amount of forest that exists there. People just live around it. There is so much natural life that exists on the periphery. That might create the vibe you’re describing.
Filmmaker: Like a mass unconscious.
Filmmaker: The fact that you call the film The Oregonian is another kind of abstraction which depersonalizes our relationship with the protagonist.
Reeder: I think the idea is to strip away what you might think of somebody through their name or personality and see what comes out of her raw, primitive self. The word also has an interesting shape to it independent of its actual meaning. So I got lucky there.
Filmmaker: Does your girlfriend and collaborator Lindsay Pulsipher have the same creative sensibility as you, or is she just humoring you?
Reeder: [Laughs] You know, sometimes I don’t know. She will definitely sit and watch The Mirror with me, and she’s always happy when I show her a script. But she’ll tell me about another project she’s working on that she’s equally excited about that’s so … straight by comparison. Maybe she is humoring me — I don’t know! But she’s a gamer, man. She never backs off any challenges.
Filmmaker: You performed for years with art-damaged bands like Popular Shapes. Do music and filmmaking speak to each other?
Reeder: Yes, I guess they do. I probably like music more than I like film – I’m just not that good at music. I find happiness in both. When I was touring in bands, it was a lifestyle, it was fun. I played in some pretty experimental bands. People like genuine experimentation – I don’t think they respond to imitation or second-generation experimentation. When [audiences] see someone seeking out an unknown, they get interested. When it’s too derivative, they [tune out].
Filmmaker: You’re heavily involved in creating the sound design for your films, too. Do you develop audio pieces that you want to create sequences for or do you finish shooting and then find a way to illustrate certain passages with sound elements?
Reeder: It’s a little bit of both. I definitely record music before we shoot. I was watching a National Geographic show about these mountains in Death Valley that vibrate and make this crazy sound. So I recorded it off TV and ran it through some other machine and got this crazy low vibration – I don’t know if I’m ever going to use it. But I compile stuff, and then write music loosely so that when we go into an edit, we know what we have as a starting point — what musical elements need to be developed, and who can we get that’s a better guitar player than me! [Laughs]
Filmmaker: How do you keep the elements of humor that you introduce in The Oregonian from overwhelming the rest?
Reeder: It is a weird balance, which is why I don’t like being pinned into any genre. I don’t even like the word “genre.” I never know when something is either too creepy or too funny, and a lot of people might think it’s neither one. But I do like go-for-broke humor – I prefer that to rapid-fire jokes. I’m in love with the kind of humor that it takes a long time to arrive at, and once it gets there, it has to work. I love those kinds of risks.
Filmmaker: There’s very little dialogue in The Oregonian, which enhances the otherworldly effect.
Reeder: I don’t think movies always need it. I tell my stories with detail, so I don’t need a lot of dialogue. And a lot of times I’m not working with real actors, so I don’t want them talking at all! [Laughs] Since we were shooting on film, we had very little time and money. I mostly gave speaking roles to my ringers, one of whom was Robert Longstreet [Take Shelter], because he’s a pro.
Filmmaker: You just finished shooting The Rambler, based on your 2008 short, with Dermot Mulroney and Natasha Lyonne. How was that experience different from the no-budget features?
Reeder: When they’re in the crosshairs, it’s really no different. I tell them what I want and we go and get it. It’s cool to have people helping – I’d never had an AD before, so that was awesome. But at the end of the day, it was still on my shoulders to make it good, just like anything else I’ve done. I’ve always been pretty ambitious with the way I do things. Even when I had no money, I never thought that was limiting. I feel like if there’s daylight and there’s film in the camera, there’s nothing I can’t do.
Filmmaker: When did it go from you feeling “I’m having fun with my friends” to “This is an art practice, and I have to think a little more clearly about what I’m doing.”
Reeder: Well, I had this weird body of work and it occurred to me that I had never even seen cinema. So I sat down and consumed a lot of stuff and found out what my taste was. And it turns out I’m a total weirdo! It was sometime after making the Jerkbeast feature and a few shorts that I realized I’m trying to make this brand of comedy that’s completely reckless, which I love, but that it also has this Dude, Where’s My Car? element that just does not suit me, and I don’t know why I’m doing it. That’s when I started trying to find out what I was good at and what I liked. Right around that time, I made Piledriver with Lindsay, our first collaboration, and things started clicking.
Filmmaker: How do stay organized when you’re shooting something that’s essentially crazy?
Reeder: [Laughs] You know, I’m a really detailed shot lister, and a really deliberate filmmaker. There’s a schedule, even on a low-budget feature. If there’s room to be spontaneous, I will be. But honestly, these films are not that spontaneous. There’s some improv, but visually and storywise, it’s very predetermined.
Filmmaker: What’s the highest compliment you’ve ever received as a director?
Reeder: We were showing The Oregonian in Baltimore, and this guy comes up to me and Lindsay afterward – we were kind of inundated because the screening was very well attended and everyone was being nice – and he says, “I’m blind, and that was the best movie I’ve ever seen.”