“Going Beyond the Norm”: Theodore Collatos and Christopher Jason Bell on Making New Work, Going Beyond Hybrids and New Platforms
[Editor’s note: this conversation between filmmakers Christopher Jason Bell and Theodore Collatos is primarily about the making of their short films: Collatos’ Albatross and Time, and Bell‘s One Times One. You can watch Time at the bottom of this interview. We’ll be posting the online premieres of Albatross and One Times One over the next few days.]
While I often disagree with who the majority of the micro-budget filmmakers taste-makers decide to anoint as One To Watch, I’ve found plenty of directors worth talking about in the few years I’ve been “in the game” (my debut feature The Winds That Scatter premiered last year). Theodore “Teddy” Collatos is one of those filmmakers, responsible for the neo-neo-realist Dipso (Festival international du film Entrevues Belfort 2012) and Time, the Short of the Week approved look at prison-life. His work knocked me on my ass as it delves into crucial topics that often seem like a big no-no in the American independent micro-budget scene. The movies are formal but not sterile, somehow imperfect and perfect in their own right — they’re fully formed, evocative beasts. There’s a lot I wanted to talk about with Teddy, both as a friend and as a filmmaker that I find a lot of common ground with. Below we go through all of the ups and downs we’ve experienced, our perspectives on the industry and art, and our films.
Bell: Your work has a playful side to it, but it’s also something that is very composed and thought through. You’re also not afraid to have your films deal with social or political issues. What draws you to these kinds of ideas?
Collatos: I love intensity in general with film and often it becomes what people call political. I just think of it as people living life and communicating with each other. Your film’s protagonist is Muslim, which is something I wouldn’t think of as a political decision — more of a human decision — but the world considers it political.
Bell: Speaking of protagonists, where did you find Dipso‘s Matt Shaw? He’s great.
Collatos: He is one of my closest friends and I knew that he knew the world of the film intimately. We built a story around his story of a working class guy getting caught up in the system of prison. My other buddy had just gotten back from Iraq and was having such a hard time that he actually wanted to re-enlist in the military, so I incorporated that too. Time was an extension of that same impulse, to explore with people who know what it’s like. Opinions are my gold…
Bell: Can you talk a little bit more about the social and/or political aspects of your work?
Collatos: I think people and films are political whether they want to be or not — it’s unavoidable. It’s in the DNA of people and images. Some of my films are more or less confrontational but I’m generally interested in a humanistic experience and the way people treat each other and what cultures think of other cultures and so on. Which is what draws me to your films. I’m also curious why your camera is so patient.
Bell: I think an uninterrupted camera take adds weight to the material. It gives the subject a certain heft and it lets things breathe. It can be soothing, it can be agonizing, it can be many things. I’m very interested in the temporal aspect of cinema, and especially what Tarkovksy deemed “sculpting in time.” So my films are many different conversations, set within a certain amount of time at a certain tempo.
Collatos: Something I like to do is slow time down as the film goes along. With my new film Tormenting the Hen, I’m really interested in how language affects perception rather than time in that temporal sense, how a word can trigger one’s emotions.
Bell: Does your approach differ when conceiving shorts as opposed to features? Time was originally part of Dipso that you surgically removed… I think they thrive being separate! Were you ever nervous about getting rid of the portion that became Time or was it always like “nah, this can stand on its own”?
Collatos: Time as a scene in the context of Dipso ended up distracting from the momentum of Dipso because viewers were “turned off” or “disturbed” by the dialogue to the point of caring less about Dipso as a whole. I’ve never actually “planned” a short film. With Tormenting the Hen, I focused more on the writing than I ever have before.
Bell: A nice change of pace, I presume.
Collatos: Yes. And you had a similar situation as I did with Time, right?
Bell: For Winds, we ended up with a 3.5 hour assembly cut. There were a lot of things that I was very attached to that ultimately needed to go. One of them was a small arc in which Ahmad made friends with a man named Mike — he met this guy while looking for a job, an older white male who lost his arm in a car accident, now working at Medieval Times. I liked it, but it detracted from Ahmad’s story and ultimately seemed a tad bit out of place. I cleaved it, but one restless night I figured it might work on its own. I grabbed other deleted moments and put them together, and here I had this beautiful short about this friendship between two middle aged guys… one Arab male and one white male, another thing you never see in film. It was weird, funny, and oddly touching. I was happy that it ended up finding its own life.
Collatos: Yeah, and I felt the same way about Time.
Bell: It’d be interesting to have a short come out of every feature. Your newest short Albatross was originally a feature. It also has Matt Shaw.
Collatos: With Albatross as a feature I really wanted to continue to build a fictional story with within the context of Matt Shaw’s actual life. Elements of real story beats with real people in a poetic and seasonal time structure. Seasons pass, family changes and the mysteries of life go on, while shooting free form scenes and letting what happened in front of the camera also dictate the story.
Bell: How so?
Collatos: For instance, a main non-actor lead didn’t show up to a shoot and his absence shifted the story into something much better and on point with the theme of the absent parent. I think both of our shorts have elements like this built into the DNA of the story, which is cool. The structure was built in the editing room, as the shooting was more like an experiment where I’d get an idea or write a scene and just shoot it without thought of the narrative arc. I’m curious how you’re going about choosing your next film and what kind of aesthetic you’ll be focusing on?
Bell: The projects have to speak to you, as dumb as that may sound. I’m trying to get more gung-ho about filmmaking, as in… I don’t want to sit around and not do things. That doesn’t mean I want to or should make every idea that comes into my head, but I feel incredibly behind. I still need to hone my craft, and that’s not going to happen if I’m not working, you know? Speaking of, what do you think about messy work?
Collatos: Messy how?
Bell: Films that aren’t afraid to leave in rough edges… or don’t have the resources to smooth them out. I think both of our works aren’t after such rigid perfection. And to be clear, that’s a compliment to you! Because I think there’s incredible humanity in your films, something that’s quite impossible to get when you’re being so meticulous. I think you have to have some cracks…
Collatos: My background is more in the realm of art-making rather than film-making. I hope that doesn’t sound pretentious! I tend to make things because I have an idea and just go out and do it without expectation of the outcome. I feel I’ve studied so much that now the idea is to unravel the study and act on instinct, both on the set and in the editing cave. I don’t bother with storyboarding, generally speaking, as I feel like it suffocates what is happening in front of you and I’ve never really had the luxury of a fully controlled environment. I want to be surprised by my films so I’m able to watch them again.
Bell: Having that kind of loose atmosphere is great for a project. I don’t think I can do a completely improvised film, though I’d like to try. The less rigid the better, I think. Those happy accidents or whatever are the cracks that let truth, humanity, soul, whatever, in.
Collatos: Ultimately, you need people who care around you or it’s going to be hard. My wife Carolina Monnerat helps produce all of my work and acts in my new film, which is vital in order to keep going as a filmmaker. People who will walk through the fire with you. Have you ever worked with actors?
Bell: I’ve mostly worked with actors, actually. For Winds, both Mohammad Dagman and Reginald L. Barnes are actors and continue to pursue the craft. It doesn’t matter whether someone is an actor or a non-actor — do they strike me? Do they have that “presence” — something I can’t explain but I can see, feel. A difference is that an actor might be more invested in the project, because obviously they’d like to use it to get more work.
Collatos: It’s funny, talking about non-actors versus actors, makes me realize that one of my closest collaborators, Matt Shaw, started as a non-actor and over the years I now consider him an actor. With our latest collaborations, Tormenting the Hen and Albatross, he just blew me away with his discipline and did an amazing job creating a character. I think if you can set up clear points of views between characters in the script it’s so much easier.
Bell: What’s your take on film festivals? The good, the bad? I think it’s great to go and meet other filmmakers, but I also think it’s a hard avenue for it — that’s mostly on me, though, feeling shy, late to the party, and maybe the silliest form of impostor syndrome. For watching movies it’s not ideal, as a filmmaker or critic or patron, but in some ways it is… gosh, I don’t know.
Collatos: Festivals are a tricky business and at times I’m not sure what the purpose is. They’re fun but professionally I’m not sure if they help unless you’re at a top tier festival. A lot of times they seem to exist solely for the local economy.
Bell: Right — which isn’t a bad thing, that’s definitely a great thing for the community. I think that’s healthy, and I’m glad cinema is a part of that. Some of the disappointment as a filmmaker trying to play the festival game (which most of us do, despite it not being able to serve a lot of us) is that there are only a few festivals that will premiere new films. After that, many of the festivals seem to parrot the bigger festivals. I wonder how healthy it is for the art itself to just have identical programs play throughout the year.
Collatos: One of the best experiences of my life was showing Dipso to a 200+ sold out crowd at a French festival. That was pretty awesome and rewarding. The European audiences and programmers are much more attuned to more politically minded work and actually love films and filmmakers. And I had a great time with other filmmakers too… Although it was hard hearing about their European government film funding! The parroting of festivals is unfortunate for anyone that doesn’t win the lottery of a top tier fest. I can only hope there’s an honest playing field for those who apply.
Bell: And what do you make of now online exhibiting? You’ve been covered on a few outlets, Dipso is on Fandor, and you were part of Short of the Week, and the numbers they provide is no joke. And here we are now on Filmmaker Magazine.
Collatos:Thankfully for me, now there are great opportunities online that are much more open to challenging work with rougher edges.The online platform has really given my work new life, where I’m even beginning to dig backwards into footage that is years old but now might have a platform, like my new short Truth with Wine that you have seen. I only sent Time to two local festivals because I didn’t think it would get in anywhere important, before sending it to Short of the Week. I wasn’t even planning to screen it at all. I think the online world has really opened the playing field and is potentially a more valid platform for shorts.
Bell: Short of the Week and NoBudge are great, but there really need to be 10-15 more websites that do a similar thing. Dedicated to showcasing a film, giving it a write-up, etc.
Collatos: There are some, and a lot of them end up abandoned.
Bell: It seems like you’re not super careerist — as you said above, you treat it like you’re making art. That said, do you have a game plan of any sort? I once said I was going to do 3 features before I was 30… I got close. It’d be nice to set up another goal like that.
Collatos: I wouldn’t say that I’m not a careerist but I live in a time where the industry has been gutted and the chances of maintaining a career based on our personal work has become a fable. Nowadays, people are built with great sums of money. There’s not really any type of ladder system or “paying your dues” or even collaboration in the same way. When I think of the well-known directors of the past, for instance, it’s hard to find any of them that have written a script, shot a film, acted or even edited a movie.
Bell: True. Whereas we have the access to do all of it with relative ease.
Collatos: Ease on the front end, not on the back end. And they had built-in systems of collaboration and distribution. Over time I’ve had to learn how to shoot with multiple mediums, learned how to direct and edit, and all of these skills have enabled me carve out a bit of a career. I make my own films, but I also make films for companies and I try to maintain the same level of integrity in both worlds.
Bell: And moving forward, what do you think you’ll do for your next projects?
Collatos: I really want to continue writing and making films that are less dependent on “being real life.” I think a lot of filmmakers these days rely too heavily on improvisation, having no script and play acting. It can feel like acting exercises or people not knowing what they’re doing and feels hollow to watch.
Bell: I also think that contemporary filmmakers rely too much on improv — it feels like a first take, it feels shallow, and although I really hate this term, I’ll say it: things tend to feel “undercooked.” We’re in a very interesting time, and maybe this is our version of those studio films that directors would crank out a couple of times a year, ones that weren’t so hot but important to their development.
Collatos: I love documentary/fiction hybrids a lot but for now I really want to expand beyond that. Maybe doing a fable trilogy… Along with my documentaries, I’d like to try to present a moral and characters with an extreme point of view for the next few films. What I loved about your film besides the visual poetry was the overarching themes of man vs. nature, man vs. himself, man vs. man throughout the lived-in believable “acting.” And I think working on that level takes courage.
Bell: This medium is such a difficult one to work in. My question is, why continue? And how would you make it better for yourself, as a filmmaker?
Collatos: Why continue… I think the “why” part of continuing is wrapped around expectations. I do my best to have no expectations and I think that’s the best way to go for a low/no-budget filmmaker. Expectation brings everyone down to their knees at some point in everyone’s life. I try and focus on the making of the thing. The times that you’re in an intense situation, with your friends and people who care about you and the act of creating. These are the times when I feel most alive and vital.
Bell: Some aspects of filmmaking are without a doubt pleasing, and I’ve learned so much about myself and the world by doing it. Hopefully the films shake people up in different ways — you never can tell. But all that aside… “why continue.” I’m not sure what else I’d be doing, you know? Playing video games, reading, watching movies. Without a project to work on, I’d honestly feel pretty useless. Not that I begrudge those that don’t pursue something like this — they’re probably more sane, I think — but I feel like I got bit by this bug and now I can’t get this urge out of me.