Contemporary as Repertory: Aaron Schimberg and Jon Dieringer on Go Down Death at Spectacle
Perhaps it’s the fabulist way its characters relay their inverted sense of normality or their ragged way of dress, but something about Aaron Schimberg’s debut feature Go Down Death is unshakably anachronistic — and it’s not just the black-and-white 16 mm. Fitting then, that the film accounts for the first-ever theatrical run at the Williamsburg repertory theater, Spectacle.
Screenings begin this Friday, with select showings in Smell-o-Vision, the aromatic brain child of producer-editor Vanessa McDonnell, who considers Go Down Death to be the ultimate vehicle for “the weird perfumes and other odd tinctures I’ve made out of plants, foods, etc.,” aside from the 5-hour cut of Scenes From A Marriage.
Filmmaker spoke to Schimberg and Spectacle programmer and Screen Slate founder Jon Dieringer about why it made sense to bend the rules for this undeservedly underground title, and the many facets the film and theater share in common. Go Down Death will be released in July by Factory 25.
Filmmaker: Jon, how did you first come across Go Down Death?
Jon Dieringer: Just through knowing Aaron. I’ve been involved with Spectacle for about three years, and when I met Aaron…[to Aaron] you had already finished shooting it, right? We had hung out before as friends, but at some point, Aaron was doing a rough-cut screening. Actually, Aaron wasn’t there, Vanessa was, but I went to a rough cut screening, There were probably six or seven people there –
Filmmaker: Where was it?
Dieringer: It was at their house. They projected the film. And the discussion was really great. I really enjoyed it. It had been a while since I’d been involved in that level of discussion after a screening. I think there were maybe one or two other rough cuts that I went to, so that’s how I knew about the film. And there were other Spectacle programmers there at various times.
Filmmaker: So you’re just in with the Spectacle folk?
Aaron Schimberg: Yeah, I’ve been going there since it opened up.
Filmmaker: When did it open? 20…?
Dieringer: Late 2010. Around September or October.
Filmmaker: So you first encountered Go Down Death in 2012. Did you come back to Aaron then, following his festival run? How did the conversation come about that you were going to program it for a theatrical run at Spectacle.
Schimberg: They proposed the idea to me. My only sense of concern was for Spectacle, for the theater. What they’re doing is perfect as it is, and I don’t want to be the guy to come in there and fuck that up, by doing a run. But I guess that Jon talked to the other programmers, and it seemed like instead of it being at odds with what they were already doing, it seemed like good fit for their overall curatorial endeavor.
Filmmaker: Yeah, it definitely makes sense to me. I think Go Down Death is anachronistic, in a good way. It’s definitely not like anything else that’s coming out now.
Schimberg: When they brought it up, I kind of realized it was a perfect fit. Because I do think that I’m someone that goes to a lot of movies, and goes to the theatre a lot, and Spectacle’s audiences are very open to everything.
Dieringer: Yeah, it’s really the kind of thing where, if we were 30 years removed, it would be a no-brainer that we would show it. And because it is sort of timeless, you can pretend it was made 30 years ago, or that you’re 30 years in the future, watching it. I think the same way that we [Spectacle] look outside the canon of repertory cinema, I also think this was a way of looking outside the contemporary indie film world or, the traditional cycle of the festival circuit and art-house distribution. This was a film that we all felt really passionately about and it didn’t seem to fit in on that track. I think another reason it makes sense is because Spectacle is a community effort, you know, there are 30 of us. I think in the localized spirit of Go Down Death being shot in the next neighborhood over [Greenpoint.] It has a very handmade collaborative quality to it. I mean, obviously it has a really unique individual sensibility, but you can also tell it has these really integral collaborations from the production designer, the cinematographer, the costume designers and all the performers. So, in that sense, the way that it is like a truly independent film and Spectacle is a truly independent cinema…It just seemed to make a lot of sense and I think a lot of the community around Spectacle gravitated towards the film in terms of contributing in various ways, whether people were commenting on critiques, or helping with sound editing, designing posters.
Filmmaker: Yeah, your poster’s great.
Schimberg: Which one? There’s two of them.
Filmmaker: The carnival-esque one with all the different characters. Who designed that?
Schimberg: Me and Vanessa. Then there’s another poster that Zach Hewitt at Spectacle designed. We’ve been using both posters.
Dieringer: Spectacle is, I think, a really rich creative community. For instance, in my professional life, or if a friend asks me to refer them for a job, I always think back to Spectacle, like who do I know at Spectacle. It made sense with the film: “Who do I know who can design posters? Oh, there’s people at Spectacle.”
Schimberg: [To Jon] I think you should just answer all the questions.
Schimberg: Just ask him questions, he’s much better at this than I am.
Filmmaker: Well, I would say that he’s a writer, but so are you, so you don’t get off easy there. Well what I also love about the movie that it’s not just visually a world unto itself, it is narratively as well. It plays like a novel. I wouldn’t call them vignettes, but it’s just like little…
Filmmaker: Yeah. It’s episodic, and especially the end is just this amazingly weird postscript. I thought it was so important how you made the transition from the world of Go Down Death to “The City.” You decided to show the people of the city, and not what it looks like, because that’s what I think the driving force is in the majority of the narrative – it’s the people as a product of surroundings, right?
Filmmaker: So you shot it in Greenpoint?
Schimberg: Yes. The whole movie was shot in one abandoned paint factory.
Schimberg: At the corner of Hyde and Nostrum.
Filmmaker: So did you steal it? Did you have to pay for it?
Schimberg: We had to pay for it. Nostrum. N-o-s-t-r-u-m.
Dieringer: I’ve never heard of that street.
Schimberg: Nostrum. We had to pay for it, yeah.
Filmmaker: And the exteriors are all models, right?
Schimberg: Yeah. All models. We had a model set, a model maker created the whole village about the size of a ping-pong table and he was sort of working in the corner while we were shooting the rest of the film. He finished it on the last day, and that was the last thing we shot.
Filmmaker: And what about the birches? Did you just build that in the –
Schimberg: That’s a trade secret.
Dieringer: It was a really incredible set.
Filmmaker: It’s very intricate.
Schimberg: That’s the trade secret of the production designers, and they don’t want me giving away trade secrets.
Filmmaker: No, alright.
Schimberg: I mean, maybe they do.
Filmmaker and Dieringer: [Laughs.]
Dieringer: Yeah, someone should interview them. I mean, the look of it is so incredible. It brings it back to another reason that it makes sense for Spectacle to show the film. Spectacle is a very handmade theater, it was built from salvaged construction materials. There’s a company called Built it Green.
Schimberg: We got stuff from them.
Dieringer: Oh really? Yeah, so there you go, that’s the secret link. Built it Green, it’s this really great non-profit construction salvage business, so like when people are making films or theatres, they will donate their materials to build the green which then sells at a discounted rate to another non-profits or community theater-type things.
Dieringer: The theater was an old bodega, so they gutted it and re-built it. [To Aaron] In the same way that you transformed a paint factory into a whole other world, we transformed a bodega into a scrappy movie theatre. [Laughs.]
Filmmaker: Spectacle’s beautiful. Especially the bathroom.
Dieringer: Thank you. We take special pride in our shower.
Filmmaker: Script-wise, Aaron, where the idea came from? Writing it, did you think it was possible to realize? It is so intricate. Most of what comes out of Brooklyn is defined by people working within their means, that’s why the same movie is made over and over again.
Schimberg: [Laughs.] I’m not going to say anything bad about that.
Filmmaker: No, I’m not baiting you. But it’s inspiring to me whenever someone takes a really original approach like this, given the means.
Schimberg: Thank you. I was inspired partially — this is verbatim from the press kit — from a fever dream that I had, when I was on morphine, after having surgery. And, to answer your other question, I did not think it was possible to make this film. It’s probably why I wrote it. I think it was self-defeating in a certain sense, but somehow I assembled an amazing group of people who made it possible, despite my best efforts to sabotage myself, somehow it happened.
Filmmaker: How long did the process take from when you wrote it?
Schimberg: It happened fairly quickly. I mean, the hardest part I think was casting the film, which took a long time, and editing the film.
Schimberg: It took a long time edit it.
Filmmaker: Yeah, I would think that the casting would be crucial, because although costume design does its thing, you have to believe the faces exist in an alternate world.
Schimberg: We put out open calls, you know. I didn’t put out specific descriptions or anything like that. We saw a lot of bad actors, and because there’s music and singing in this, we got a lot of Broadway people, or people who wanted to be on Broadway. They’d come and they’d sing these Barbra Streisand-ish songs and it was not appropriate for the film. So finding like the right cast of misfits was a lot of hours of auditions. We saw probably 1,000 people.
Filmmaker: Wow. And did you have the location before you started, or in your mind before you wrote it?
Schimberg: No, we were just looking for an empty space. As you know, space isn’t cheap in New York, so even a 1,000 square feet abandoned factory, nobody wants to give it to you. Well, a lot of people would give it to us, but they would say, ‘Well, you know, if the Food Network wants to come in here, we’re gonna kick you out.” We had to get the functioning town or village and keep it up there.
Filmmaker: Did you get through the shoot without incident though? Or were you having to close down and then come back?
Schimberg: No, we had to do it all at once. I mean, we wouldn’t have been to re-do it. We shot it on film, and had to send the film to a lab in Los Angeles, because nobody was processing in black and white in New York anymore, so…
Filmmaker: Did you send it all after it was shot or…?
Schimberg: We sent it every day. And it would take a week to get it back, so the whole last week’s worth of shooting, the set was already gone. It was already in the dumpster, we were already out of the space before I saw any of the footage.
Filmmaker: Fingers crossed.
Schimberg: Yeah. We got lucky.
Filmmaker: Were you doing re-shoots based off the footage, as it came back in, or no?
Schimberg: We couldn’t do it.
Filmmaker: How long was the shoot?
Schimberg: Fifteen days.
Filmmaker: Wow. Not a ton.
Schimberg: Not a ton, no. Long days, but you know, we were shooting on film so I would get one or two takes of everything.
Filmmaker: Had you worked on film before?
Schimberg: Just for short films.
Filmmaker: I mean you have to make the argument for shooting it on the film. It wouldn’t work if it was shot on digital.
Schimberg: Yeah I never had a question [about it]. Back when we shot it two years ago, film was still a viable choice, but you know they still projected film two years ago.
Filmmaker: Yeah. There is the whole element of voyeurism in the movie, though. With how you bridge together the scenes. A lot of the time, it’s people hearing through cracks in the wood and it also has a found footage element, obviously not of the horror variety. Even though you play at horror festivals.
Schimberg: Yeah, I’ll play anywhere.
Schimberg: But especially festivals.
Filmmaker: How did the Spectacle run work with your deal with Factory 25? Did that come afterwards? You can’t say.
Schimberg: I don’t know if I can say.
Schimberg: It came after. We’d spent months working on the Spectacle thing, if not more.
Filmmaker: Why so long?
Dieringer: Just waiting for the right time, I guess.
Schimberg: I was playing festivals.
Dieringer: It was a really hectic. I mean, we had talked about doing it the last summer, and then the Northside thing came up, and then some other festivals, and at the end of the year, things tend to get lost in the holidays. November, December, and then we wouldn’t have had time to promote it. So it’s been, not quite a year, but probably nine months or something since we first you know, asked Aaron about doing it.
Schimberg: And Matt was aware we were doing it. And I think he’s excited about it, you know?
Filmmaker: Is he going to do an additional theatrical run here or no?
Schimberg: That’s pending.
Filmmaker: But once you had gotten the Spectacle thing off the ground it wasn’t like, “Okay, that’s my theatrical deal for New York. I’m done.”
Schimberg: No, I mean it is my New York forum and it’s true that Spectacle doesn’t usually do these things, but that’s what made it more exciting. You know, I’m happy to have my New York run and I feel like it’s happening the right way. I feel like everybody there has been supportive of it and I don’t know, what do you think about it [to Jon]? Talk more.
Filmmaker: [Laughs.] He’s talking too much.
Dieringer: No, I mean, I think we’re really thrilled to be showing the film and it’s mutual enthusiasm. It just seemed like maybe we were uniquely positioned to present the film in a context that allows people to approach it with different expectations than you would in a traditional movie theatre.
Filmmaker: Definitely. So what are you going to do now with all the filmmakers knocking down your door, Jon?
Dieringer: It just happened very organically. There was literally no interest in doing runs and Aaron, as far as we knew, had no interest, I mean maybe you did, but we didn’t know that. Just like how love finds you whether or not you’re looking for it.
Schimberg: Is that the title of the article?
Filmmaker: You know it just may be.
Dieringer: Death finds you when you’re not looking for it.