Bleak Moments: Ronald Bronstein on Frownland
This interview with Frownland director Ronald Bronstein (a 2007 25 New Face) by fellow 25’er David Lowery was originally published in 2006. It is being reposted this week as Frownland receives a rare NYC screening this coming Sunday at the Alamo Drafthouse — projected by Bronstein himself. Click for tickets.
Traveling on the festival circuit and spending days in darkened theaters, one grows accustomed to the ebb and flow of certain trends in independent film. Talkative, shakily digital twentysomething dramedies; sensitive tone poems; documentaries both edgy and lyrical. Then a film like Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland comes out of nowhere and reminds us why we go to festivals in the first place: to see things we’ve never seen before.
Frownland premiered at the SXSW Film Festival this past March, after which those who loved it and those who hated it found they had one thing in common: they couldn’t stop talking about it. In fact, the only thing more galvanizing than watching the film itself was hearing that it was awarded a Special Jury Prize. “That’s kind of the beauty of SXSW,” notes festival programmer Matt Dentler. “A film like Frownland was not going to go unnoticed.”
The jury didn’t play it safe, but then again neither did Bronstein, who spent several years crafting a directorial debut that is at times almost unbearably abrasive – a grimy, manic masterpiece of black comedy that buries its humor beneath layers of egregious discomfort. Shot on 16mm and blown up to a feverishly grainy 35mm print, Frownland follows Keith, a stuttering door-to-door coupon salesman, as he negotiates the highs and lows of life on the fringes of New York City. The film begins as a kitchen-sink drama, narrows itself into a character study and then, through several structural permutations, gradually worms its way right into the unstable psyche of its protagonist. Keith, as played by Dore Mann, is a raw nerve of a human being, incapable of coherent communication, as exasperating as he is compelling.
Likewise, Frownland is one of the most confrontational and uncompromising visions to emerge from the American independent scene in recent memory. Since its bow in Austin, Bronstein has shown Frownland at the Maryland Film Festival, CineVegas and Harvard Independent Series, and was recently named one of Filmmaker’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film.” We spoke to Bronstein about the film just as he was finalizing the deal for French theatrical distribution (currently the film does not have U.S. distribution) – proving that Europe is still a far safer haven for challenging cinema than our own shores.
Filmmaker: You claim story credit on the film, but there’s no “written by” credit. Did you have a script?
Bronstein: I started by writing a pretty detailed script, which in hindsight was a big fat waste of my time. A pinheaded endeavor really. ’Cause the film, as you know, it didn’t actually come into being until it was cast. And from that point on I was grossly adjusting the scenes and the dialogue from day to day, depending on how the dynamics between the actors shifted and deepened during rehearsals. In general, I’m pretty disenchanted with the standard industry approach to scriptwriting. I mean, I do find it helpful in terms of mapping out a structure and overarching themes and stuff, but the act of sitting alone in your room and trying to nail on the page the sort of ineffable dimensionality of human inflection just seems so completely backwards to me. ’Cause as soon as you try and pass that set text through an actor’s mouth, ugh, it’s like knocking a square peg through a round hole. All the immediacy and emotionality gets lost. Like a dubbed voice. Maybe this approach can work if you’re making something grounded in heavy plotting, where the characters and the dialogue exist chiefly to move the narrative from A to B. But I want to work in the reverse. I want the progression of the story to form organically out of the characters themselves. So in my case, capturing realistic dialogue, and all of its roundabout clumsiness, is absolutely essential. I mean every person on the planet has their own singular relationship with syntax and grammar. And that relationship sort of calcifies over time in super complex ways. How can one brain possibly hope to simulate that insane level of detail over several distinct voices? For my purposes it’s much more effective to cast extremely interesting people and then rely on the freshness of their interpretations to generate dialogue. ‘Cause when you tap into someone’s natural speech rhythms, you not only capture nuanced inflection but you get all of the weird muscular gestures and unconscious facial tics that go along with it. And these kinds of elements are extremely important to me. They carry a work. So, yeah, in the end, I felt the term “screenwriter” wasn’t all that applicable. It suggests something absolute.
Filmmaker: What was the production of the film like? Again, judging from the credits, it looks like you had a tiny crew. The entire picture seems quite handmade.
Bronstein: Yeah, I wanted to make something that felt really intimate and it’s funny how a sort of crummy, slipshod aesthetic can do that. Sort of like the feeling you get from reading some hand-scrawled Xeroxed fanzine, where the sloppiness of the presentation becomes a kind of expressive asset to the work, rather than something you have to excuse. I don’t know. I mean if you run across a typo in The New York Times, it’s just flat-out distracting. It doesn’t bring you closer to the writer or the ideas or anything. It merely outs some birdbrain who didn’t do his job correctly. But in the case of something loudly handmade, an error can actually reel you in closer. It points to a total lack of pasteurization and makes a beeline between you and the person that created it. You get this feeling from Syd Barrett records and you get it from Robert Crumb comics and it’s something I want to give off in the work I make. But, yeesh, to actually answer your question, we were a small group of 6 or 7, cast and crew included. Petty quarrels, bad moods and various levels of insidious coaxing were common occurrences I guess, but that’s only because we lived together like a family for several years and everybody was super emotionally invested in the project, which is the only way I can imagine working really. The thought of surrounding myself with technicians who don’t personally identify with the work is sort of scary to me. I think it would constipate me creatively.
Filmmaker: Where did you meet Dore Mann? I assume that there is some level of acting there, but Keith is such a precise bundle of tics and neuroses that it’s easy to assume that’s just the way he is. It’s an amazing performance.
Bronstein: Well, I first met Dore at a family funeral. He introduced himself to me as my cousin, which wasn’t quite true. We’re actually what’s called “cousins in common.” Which means his third cousin is cousins with my third cousin or something equally abstract. And yeah, it seems the first thing people want to know after seeing the movie is whether he’s like Keith in real life. Good grief! I mean, personally, I think that’s like the ultimate complement; to embody a role with such crude intensity that people just presume it’s not even acting. But understandably, given Keith’s sorry state of being, this is something that makes Dore a little self-conscious. ’Cause the creation of the role was a very personal thing for him. This process involved isolating and magnifying certain traits of his personality that fit the wretched scope of the project, and bleaching away others that didn’t. What resulted was a character that only he could play, but needless to say, he’s a lot more dynamic when not constrained by the role.
Filmmaker: During his climactic attempt to communicate with his friend Sandy, there are so many little bits and pieces of character information flying out of his mouth – it’s as if an entire stream of consciousness portrait of his character is pouring out at once.
Bronstein: Yeah, he’s a complete maniac in it. The rehearsals for that particular scene involved making him prepare enough dialogue for like 10 scenes, then loading him up with a disgusting amount of caffeine, spinning him around, making him sprint down the block until he was dizzy and hyperventilating, and then sort of letting him go so that he was totally incapable of relaying this prepared information linearly or coherently. What came out was this berserk jumble of disparate sentiments that rendered him absolutely senseless. Hopefully though you’re left with the impression that were he to calm down and relax for a second he’d be able to elaborate on each and every word in a completely rational way. That what you’re hearing is not just random babble but rather the tip of some enormous iceberg. Personally, I think it’s his strongest moment in the whole movie.
Filmmaker: Can someone actually make a living in NYC distributing coupon packets?
Bronstein: Well, I don’t know. I mean it’s a ludicrously crummy job. But then again it was based on something Dore actually did for a living when he was younger so I guess it’s not all that unrealistic. There’s something in the nature of the reverse-commute – heading out to the island while the rest of the functioning working world is fighting their way into Manhattan – that struck me as being suitably backwards and maybe a little bit shameful too.
Filmmaker: Both the positive and negative notices for the film use many of the same adjectives – “unpleasant” probably being the most common. Did these responses to the film surprise you in any way, or did you initially set out to create a tough pill to swallow?
Bronstein: The film asks its audience to spend a lot time with a person they’d probably instantly write-off in real life, which I suppose could be viewed as a kind of punishment. But I think the “unpleasantness” in Frownland has more to do with its decided lack of orientation. Is Keith a victim or victimizer? Is the film inviting you to laugh at him? Look down on him? Sympathize with him? Well, it’s kept unclear. Or rather, it spastically jerks you in and out of these various viewpoints and makes it hard to settle on any one of them. Which can be frustrating. Especially when you consider how over-orienting most movies are. But it’s not like it was my intention to harass people here. I mean, I genuinely think there’s value in getting an audience to chew a person over and swallow them and regurgitate them and maybe chew them over some more before arriving at some kind of assessment. I don’t know.
Filmmaker: Incidentally, after seeing the film a second time, I was a bit surprised at my own vehemence of my initial reaction; it went down much more easily, and the humor was far more pronounced.
Bronstein: I’m glad you bring this up ’cause it’s a big part of the work for me and something we were super conscious of while making it. But maybe “funny” isn’t quite the right term. ’Cause it’s funny more in the way an extremely awkward or embarrassing situation can wind up making you laugh out loud at exactly the wrong moment. There’s an exquisite kind of comedy embedded in excruciating moments like this. Though maybe only in hindsight.
Filmmaker: On a related note, what are some of the best reactions you’ve had, both positive and negative?
Bronstein: Well, yikes, a fight nearly broke out after this one screening in Las Vegas. Some guy in the back of the theatre was booing throughout the closing credits. When they ended, this other guy stood up, turned to face the booer, and screamed, “You! You’re a fucking asshole!” I mean he really screamed. He was absolutely enraged. Red as a beet. Shaking. That’s when a third guy stood up and started defending the booer. The second guy turned on the third. Everyone was arguing. It was sort of a melee. Turns out that last guy was the attending critic for Variety and he wound up writing us a killer review. Which leads me to think that that kind of raw caustic energy is real good for the project. It forces people to quickly choose a position and defend it. I should probably start hiring shills to run up and punch me in the face after each screening.
Filmmaker: This is your debut film. How long did it take you to get it off the ground? And how did you put together financing for a film that’s about as far from commercial as one might get?
Bronstein: Ugh. I stopped counting after the third year. But it just took so damn long to get the money together. First, my apartment burned down and I got a small insurance settlement. Then I weaseled my way into a well-paying copywriting job in Sweden, where I lived for a year. Once I had accumulated what I thought would be a suitable shooting budget, I instantly quit, came back to Brooklyn and started making the movie. That money was gone within three months and I spent the next year working six days a week as a projectionist, earning enough to shoot one scene every five weeks and rehearsing non-stop in between. Marc Raybin – who produced the movie – kicked in some money. And so did my family. But deep down I guess I didn’t feel like I’d earned the right to experiment with other people’s money. Thankfully, I don’t have that confidence problem anymore. Which is good ’cause I don’t have any money anymore either.
Filmmaker: Did you submit to many festivals prior to SXSW?
Bronstein: Hmmm. I can’t remember exactly, but SXSW was one of the first I applied to, and the one I was most anxious to attend. So I got lucky. I didn’t even apply to Sundance. Mostly because I haven’t had a relationship with anything that’s come out of Sundance in so long. I don’t know. I think Matt Dentler really distinguishes himself from other big league programmers in that he’s so totally committed to discovering and promoting totally under-the-radar projects, and he doesn’t care if there isn’t any cachet behind your name or critical consensus behind your work. I mean, it would be pretty easy to confuse the sort of disheveled quality of Frownland with flat-out ineptitude. Heh. He didn’t and I feel super indebted to him.
Filmmaker: The structure of the film is as precise as it is unpredictable. You follow Keith for approximately an hour, and then spin off into this tangent with his roommate Charles, who then leads back to him. There’s a precedent in this, in that the characters of Laura and Sandy each have their own little moments to themselves, but in the extended sequence with Charles, you really subvert expectations about where the film is going. By temporarily removing Keith from the plot, you also set up his climax. Was this something that came about in the editing process, or was the film’s structure premeditated?
Bronstein: Yeah, the idea of having this unwieldy narrative departure was premeditated, but like most everything else, it was revised in all sorts of ways while we were shooting. But in general, my goal with the structure was to find some kind of narrative framework that could incorporate the haphazard rhythms of Keith’s emotional life into a fluid network of events. I mean the guy is super unbalanced. All of his relationships are unbalanced. And so the structure of the film wound up being unbalanced too. Some characters exit the film prematurely without any fanfare whatsoever (like Laura). Others grossly outstay their welcome, to almost untenable degrees (like Charles). But in the end, it’s not really an ensemble piece at all and it wasn’t necessary that each character be weighed out equally. These digressions are more like little narrative pivots around Keith. They exist solely to offer new vantage points on the same subject. So even when he’s not onscreen, he’s still the focal point. And the narrative is still careening in accordance with his spastic neediness.
Filmmaker: The film was shot on 16mm, which is a rarity in and of itself these days, and it’s being exhibited on a 35mm blow-up. Your MySpace profile name is Frownland16mm. Clearly, film is very important to you. Can you talk about what it represents to you, and why you’re so committed to it? And was the film ever transferred to digital medium throughout the filmmaking process – i.e. did you cut on flatbed?
Bronstein: Yeah, I cut the movie on my flatbed, which in 2007 sounds more like the over-rationalized conceit of a crazy person than any kind of sound methodology. I don’t know. This topic makes me upset. The way a molecule gets “upset.”
Filmmaker: There seems to be an immediate instinct to note that anything shot on 16mm with a zoom lens harkens back to a ’70s style of filmmaking, and I saw some press at the time of the premiere that bandied about names like Cassavetes; but Frownland is quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Maybe early Mike Leigh films, but other than that, it’s a strikingly original piece of work – something that’s very rare in independent cinema. Would you actually cite any influences that might have affected you?
Bronstein: Mike Leigh is probably the single biggest influence on the work. And there’s a scene in Nuts in May [from the U.K. TV series Play for Today] that pretty much sets the bar for excruciating comedy. But I’m not really a cinephile and I don’t watch movies all that often. Let’s see. I love most of the kitchen-sink Brits – Tony Richardson, Alan Clarke, Lindsay Anderson. I love Frederick Wiseman. I love Robert Altman. And while I’ve no doubt absorbed a lot of their vocabulary, Frownland was whipped up in a pretty airtight vacuum I think.
Filmmaker: I talked to Charles Burnett about Killer Of Sheep not too long ago and he said that one of the things that freed him to make such a strong film was that he had no expectations for it, commercial or otherwise. He simply wanted to make it. Did you have any preconceived notions of what the film would be like, who it would be for, when you were making it? Did you make it for an audience?
Bronstein: Well, I certainly wasn’t c-c-c-careerist about it, that’s for sure. But I do secretly nurse this harebrained, solipsistic assumption that there are tons of other people just like me who are feeling disenfranchised from the current trends and looking for a return to more personal work.
Filmmaker: Any developments on a sophomore feature?
Bronstein: My wife Mary, who plays Laura in Frownland, has written this really abrasive script that she’s going to direct and act in this fall. And me and my friends are gonna shoot it. In the meanwhile, I’m sketching out ideas for my next feature. The working title is Tapioca Tundra and it focuses on this sort of bedraggled yippee collective’s attempts to bring this careening mess of a psychedelic play to life. Sounds horrible, eh? I know. So far it’s shaping up to be a lot angrier than Frownland, but also funnier too. We’ll see.
originally posted: August 29, 2007