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“We’re All on a Downward Spiral, Right?” Calvin Reeder on The Rambler

The Rambler

Judging from the slick production values, the leading name actor, the eye-catching poster art, and the stock horror trailer, one might glean the false impression that The Rambler, Calvin Reeder’s sophomore film, might be a more commercial affair than his micro-budget 16mm debut, The Oregonian. But make no mistake, though The Rambler finds Reeder painting with a larger canvas, the film is just as bold, hallucinatory and unrepentantly experimental as any of his previous work.

Based off the 2008 short of the same name, The Rambler follows a taciturn guitar-slinger (Dermot Mulroney, taking the role on from Reeder who played the character in the short version) recently released from prison and on a road trip through the American West to reconnect with his brother. It’s not long though before the film veers into Reeder’s particular brand of surrealism. Populated by a mad scientist with a machine that can record dreams onto VHS, a paramedic with a sick sexual proclivity, a gruesome Frankenstein-like monster, and a mysterious woman (played by Reeder’s girlfriend and longtime collaborator Lindsey Pulsipher) who seems to always be in the wrong place at the wrong time, the film follows Mulroney’s hapless leading man down an increasingly kaleidoscopic rabbit hole that’s equal parts hilarious, disorienting, and disturbing.

The Rambler opens at Brooklyn’s reRun Theater tomorrow, and releases on DVD and VOD via Anchor Bay on June 25th.

Filmmaker: At Sundance, you made a point to refer to The Rambler as a midnight movie rather than a horror film. What’s the difference for you between those two genres?

Reeder: I guess I always felt that “midnight” was the place where movies that couldn’t be categorized could live. The first midnight movie I saw was Repo Man – it was playing at midnight, and that was the entire reason it was known as a midnight movie. Then if you look back quite a bit further, El Topo was supposed to be the first midnight movie ever. And 2001 was always playing at midnight too. And on the surface, those movies don’t have a ton in common. But on some level it’s seems like people who would like one of those movies would probably like all of them. So I was kind of interested in being categorized as more of a lone wolf than as a part of something. I’ve never really felt comfortable with the word “genre” when describing my work. I feel like it makes it easy for other people to categorize me. But a midnight movie, it makes you ask questions.

Filmmaker: When you sit down to write or develop a concept, where do you start?

Reeder: With The Rambler, it was definitely with the character. I had seen a lot of movies with hitchhikers, and had noticed some consistent imagery – people in the American West, ramblers with guitars, that whole Woody Guthrie style. I really enjoy that whole persona, and I’d seen it done a lot in other movies and TV shows. So I wanted to invent my own rambler as very much an observer of strange things. Actually I think that it all came from a line in that Townes Van Zandt song “High Low and In Between,” “Us ramblers will get the traveling done.” Although I’d heard that song a thousand times, one day that line just struck me. Fuck yeah – us ramblers will get the traveling done.

Filmmaker: Did you always know that this was going to be a feature when you made the short back in 2008? Did you have the larger idea for it in your head at that time?

Reeder: It’s kind of hard for me to remember, but I think I did always know. I think once we completed the short, that’s when I started focusing on it being a feature.

Filmmaker: What was the process like developing it from this very contained 15 minutes into something a lot bigger? How did you approach extending it out?

Reeder: Well I always felt a bit constricted with the short. I felt like the short was delving into a really big mystery, but we only ever got to see a little piece of it. So when I started writing the feature, it all came pretty quickly. I was able to uncover what I was getting at in the first place – a guy probing into the unknown. That’s pretty much what all my movies are about. And maybe I’ve just been making the same movie over and over again, but that’s what I want to do.

Filmmaker: Dermot Mulroney would not be my obvious guess for the star of the second Calvin Reeder film. How did he come on board?

Reeder: I was really lucky to have David Gordon Green go to bat for me on that one. He called Dermot for me, and then it worked out really quickly. Dermot loved The Oregonian, and loved the script for The Rambler, so we became friends pretty quickly. The funding even fell through at one point when we had him attached, but he remained interested for this nine-month period where we were totally flat. He really wanted to do it.

Filmmaker: He’s such a different presence than you were in the short. How did he change the character in your eyes?

Reeder: Oh, in such a positive way. The only reason I was The Rambler in the short is because of all the shit I put that character through. I didn’t know how to get an actor, much less a Seattle actor, which is where I was at the time, to do that deadpan thing that the character calls for, and not to argue with all the vomit and stuff. But really, Dermot also just looks like a guy who’s been in prison. I was a little fresh faced and he’s got all those years working for him so well.

Filmmaker: Lindsey Pulsipher has had a presence in nearly everything you’ve done. And here you’ve expanded her role from the short in a strange way. It’s almost like she’s constantly haunting the edges of the film. What is it about her acting that makes you want her to be so prevalent in everything you do?

Reeder: I just feel like there’s nothing that she can’t do. She may not always pull the role off the way I imagined it, but she will always pull it off in a way that is just as good or better. Since I’ve gotten to know her so well over the years, I’ve developed a good handle on what she’s going to do. But she’ll always surprise me and play someone differently, in a way that elevates the character in ways that I was unaware of. She’s sort of like my ace in the hole. She’s never let me down, and she’s so easy to work with.

Filmmaker: How did she surprise you with this character?

Reeder: There were a few parts in the script where I wanted her character to be a little bitchier. But she changed it, She said, “Why don’t I try it this way?” and she added this light to the performance, and all of a sudden the character was a lot more likable. That’s a powerful thing.

The Rambler writer/director Calvin Reeder
The Rambler writer/director Calvin Reeder

Filmmaker: I wanted to ask about the casting of some of your minor characters and extras. In this film, as well as The Oregonian, there’s this constant stream of creepy actors showing up in the background of scenes – these faces that just kind of grab you. What do you look for when casting those roles?

Reeder: Well, what I’ve come to find is that those types of faces are everywhere. It’s not always that somebody with the right face can deliver dialogue. Sometimes you’ve got to use the right face as a face. Or sometimes you get lucky and someone has a face and a voice, and it all lines up. But you’ve just got to keep your eyes open. If it’s a background character, we’ll call in the extras and I’ll find my favorite looking people, and make sure they’re very visible in the shot. I always need interesting faces.

Filmmaker: Where does that impulse come from – to stop the action and let the scene kind of refocus around this ominous face for a few seconds?

Reeder: I suppose it’s about the unknown. We’re surrounded by a lot of things we’re unaware of. I guess it represents that in some way.

Filmmaker: There are so many visual motifs in the film that remain mysterious – that constant beeping light in the sky, the monster. How much of a concrete explanation do you personally have for these motifs?

Reeder: Well, with the light bulbs in the sky, to me that’s sort of a direct representation of the worlds we can’t see. A satellite, you know? They don’t necessarily reveal where they’re from, but satellites provide all kinds of information that travel across our stratosphere. They point to a full on world that we can’t see. And I wanted that to manifest itself in strange ways in The Rambler.

Filmmaker: And then there’s the idea of recording dreams onto VHS tapes, which was introduced in the short and expanded here. That almost seems to me like a perfect metaphor for your style of filmmaking. Where did that idea come from?

Reeder: That idea came from a dream. That totally came from a dream.

Filmmaker: Does a lot of your work come from dreams?

Reeder: I don’t know how much a lot is. But that definitely did. I’d say the entire concept of The Oregonian did too. So yeah, I guess a lot of stuff does, for sure. Not all of it, though.

Filmmaker: I feel like The Rambler plays with time a lot more than The Oregonian, especially in the edit. Both films manipulate time, but it feels more frantic here. I know it’s obviously a very different film, but did you see Spring Breakers?

Reeder: I did, yeah.

Filmmaker: You know how in that film, it feels like most scenes are cut into the next or the previous one? And it creates this feeling of fluidity, where you’re never quite sure where you are in time. I feel like a similar thing is happening here, where there are a lot of slow dissolves and rapid cuts that call attention to the editing.

Reeder: I think me and (editor Buzz Pierce) just kind of do that instinctually. And I know what you mean about Spring Breakers – like when Franco is playing the Britney Spears song on the piano, and then they show, at the same time, him and the girls robbing all these stores set to the music. I guess I do a version of that. I think what it is for me is that I just try to set a tone… a tone that carries these events instead of having the events create the tone. You want these things to happen in this little sphere. It’s something that Buzz and I sort of just do instinctually, and we’re always looking for the best combination of picture and sound. Nothing’s an accident, that’s for sure.

Filmmaker: When we spoke before Sundance, I asked about The Oregonian and your previous shorts – how those films were all shot on expired Super 16, and how that look almost became a part of the film itself, like some haunted relic you’d find in an attic somewhere. And you said was that even though The Rambler wasn’t shot on film, you hoped that that same feeling – of the camera being a part of the work itself – came across.

Reeder: So what do you think? Did it?

Filmmaker: I think so, but I think the way it comes across is with those rapid cuts and flourishes that we’re talking about. But I’m curious – for you, how did you set out to retain that sensibility?

Reeder: You know, we set out to shoot the film on Super 16. I was going to use bigger lenses, but it was always going to have a similar feel to The Oregonian. And then, when it turned out we had to get this film bonded, we lost a bunch of money. We no longer had money for film and processing and all that. So it was only then that we thought about what we liked in the digital realm. And I guess I was still finding it the whole time, up through the editing process. Eventually I accepted this was just going to be a much bigger feeling movie. I learned to accept that. I think you can feel it in the score. Not that the score is big, but I think the score holds a lot of mystery. And you can feel it with the wide-open spaces in the film. I think The Oregonian is tighter. We only shot with one or two lenses, and we didn’t get a lot of opportunity for open expanse. But I think I connected with The Rambler after I realized exactly how much of that we had.

Filmmaker: In some of my Google searching after watching The Oregonian, I found this blog called 50 Trips Thru Oregon, where this guy tried to watch that film 50 times. Have you seen that?

Reeder: I have seen it. But it seemed like he wasn’t really keeping up on it.

Filmmaker: I think he gave it up after awhile – I don’t think he made it to 50. But I kind of get it, you know? There are certain films where you feel like the more you watch it, the more you’re going to grasp something, or solve a puzzle. And obviously because it’s surrealism, you’re never going to click the pieces together exactly. But why do you think these films inspire that kind of quest?

Reeder: I like the curiosity angle, and I know that that’s what he says – he’s curious about figuring it out. But I also hope he likes being in it. If you enjoy seeing a movie that puts you in a place like The Oregonian, you probably want to see it as much as you can, because you’re not going to get it anywhere else. So I like to think that might be part of it too.

Filmmaker: For you, is there a clear meta-narrative to put together? Like, a solution to the equation?

Reeder: Oh yeah. I think absolutely. I honestly think that in The Oregonian it’s very plain to see the transformation of the character there. The transcendence is very clear for me. That’s the narrative. It’s not told so much in words, but just look at the process of acceptance that the character goes through. It’s plain, even just in the physical stuff she does with her body. She starts the movie completely in tears and inconsolable, but by the end those same things that made her that way are completely hysterical to her. So yeah, it’s pretty clear to me what that movie’s about. I think The Rambler’s a lot like that too, only this character is a different being. His trip is different.

Filmmaker: That’s interesting, because the movie in a sense feels very episodic, like different stops on a road trip. But for you, the “narrative” is really grounded in the character, and the different stages you’re taking him through.

Reeder: So far in my experience, I’ve found that short films are about situations and feature films are about character. Characters have driven me all the way through. I’m also a big detail guy – I like details and events – but I need my character to get me there. I’ll take event over plot any day.

Filmmaker: One of the most notable plot points that the film is ambiguous about is why this character has been in prison. There are plenty of opportunities to address what landed him in there, but it seems like you purposefully side step around it. What was the reasoning behind that?

Reeder: I guess the reason was that when you’re in prison, you’re just a number. You sort of don’t have a personality, at least not to the government. You don’t get to pick your own clothes, and whatever there is that’s unique about you is completely white washed. I wanted to start him with a clean slate, and then piece by piece learn a little more about this guy. I thought the best place to start with that was prison. I think that the film is all about moving ahead. It’s all about forward motion, and not a lot about reflection. And maybe that’ll seem like a contradiction after you watch the film, but I think his character development – or his quest – is definitely about forward movement.

Filmmaker: Do you see the film as redemptive or hopeful? Because to me, it plays more like a downward spiral. We leave the character in a fairly dark place.

Reeder: I don’t really believe in redemption or hope. And yeah, I think calling it a downward spiral is a lot better way to describe it than redemption of any kind. But I think we’re all on a downward spiral, right? Just try to deny that.

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