|Campbell Scott and Jesse Eisenberg in Roger Dodger. PHOTO: PETER FIGETAKIS.|
As smoothly assured and fast on its feet as its eponymous anti-hero, Dylan Kidd’s debut feature, Roger Dodger, is what might be called a classic New York indie. Smart, filled with rich verbal banter and using Manhattan’s backdrop to provide an accelerated milieu for its desirous characters, the film and its recent success prove that there is life in the old-school approach of putting a first feature together.
Played to smarmy perfection by Campbell Scott, Roger initially seems like a cleaner-cut refugee from a James Toback film. Enjoying a casual affair with his older boss (Isabella Rossellini), Roger nevertheless plays the field, using as his pickup lines a jaded Manhattan monologue of sociological observation, media critique and Darwinian musings. When one night Roger is visited by his virginal 16-year-old nephew Nick, the two venture into the city looking to score. Although the setup seems familiar, what gives Roger Dodger its unique punch is the dialectic it presents (sorry, but Kidd was a philosophy major) between desire and the quixotic quest for its fulfillment. The writer-director uses the frustrated desires inherent to capitalist consumer societies as plot points to be nimbly choreographed. Kidd’s is a pickup movie in which no one is successfully picked up, a coming-of-age film in which it’s not clear which character has actually reached adulthood and finally, a comedy about seduction in which only the audience is truly seduced.
Roger Dodger will be released by Artisan in October 2002.
Filmmaker: So how did you get involved in film?
Dylan Kidd: I went to college in Washington, D.C., at George Washington, studying philosophy. And after a year I hated it. I saw an ad in American Cinema magazine for Tisch School of the Arts. This was back in 1987 or ’88, and I didn’t even know there was such a thing as film school. Almost on a whim, I sent off for an application. I was a film buff, but I never figured that [making movies] was something I could actually do. So, I thought I would do a semester of production and then move into cinema studies, where I could write about films. And then I had that magic thing where I put my eye to the eyepiece, saw the shutter and my brain exploded. I knew that filmmaking was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I graduated in 1991, [and] everyone I knew went to L.A.. I stayed in New York and it has been 10 years of long, slow progress to getting a career together.
Filmmaker: What did you do during those 10 years?
Kidd: I spent a couple of them being drunken and depressed, working in a pool hall. I worked as a janitor, a doorman, in a video store, as a cook, a waiter, cappuccino guy, housepainter. Worked real estate for a couple of years. I worked as an assistant cameraman and assisted Joaquín [Baca-Asay], the guy I met in film school who shot my movie, on a couple of things. It wasn’t until 1995 that I realized I wanted to be a director. Around 1998 and 1999, between teaching and doing industrial fashion stuff, I could say I was sort of making a living in the industry. It was a long haul.
Filmmaker: Yours is a movie of very long scenes. What goes into writing, directing and editing scenes with such long page counts?
Kidd: When I first met Campbell [Scott] in the coffee shop, he said [about the script], “These are some long fucking scenes! Are you aware of this?” It’s tough when you have a script that’s very wordy on the page. A lot of people, and perhaps rightly so, think maybe it’s just a stage play. I’ve always felt that film is about showing people in their environment, and I feel like the movie is about how the world that somebody lives in can bleed inside and affect who they are as a person. I could never conceive of Roger outside of this world of cigarette smoke, neon light and martini glasses. Everything Joaquín and I did [with the camera] was to break down to the notion of “you are watching a movie.” We did a lot of two-camera stuff, and we didn’t cover things with master shots — we just wanted to throw you into the scenes and make you get your bearings.
Filmmaker: Specifically, how would you cover the scenes?
Kidd: Usually we would do two shots and then two singles. We did a lot of stuff where one camera would get the meat and potatoes, and the other would be a roaming telephoto. There is a certain kind of independent movie that to me is very difficult to get engaged in, where it’s like, “We didn’t have enough money to really do it, so here’s our one dolly master.” It’s better to just do everything handheld. Your eye doesn’t even try to look for the composition — you just follow the faces through the movie. It’s a great style, because even if you jump the line or screw up placing the camera, you can’t make a bad cut.
Filmmaker: What’s the secret to writing an antihero the audience wants to stick with?
Kidd: The example that I kept in mind was [Mike Leigh’s] Naked, which I was very impressed and moved by. No matter how despicable the David Thewlis character is, because he is engaged and obviously a thinking person, you are willing to go there with him. I felt that if we turned Roger into a cynic or blasé guy, you’d be sick of him by page 10. But this guy has given a lot of thought to [his theories of seduction] and believes in them passionately. If I feel that somebody has a brain, I’ll watch them and hope for them to [come to] some kind of realization.
Filmmaker: What motivated you to make a movie about this kind of character?
Kidd: I’m very interested in the kind of person that I see a lot in New York — somebody who is hypereducated, verbal, witty and successful, but at the same time has no inner life or self-awareness. There are a lot of people who are just walking around with no idea what is driving them. Also what I like is, you go to a movie and you’ve got 100 years of film history in your head. You know that you’re going to be watching somebody’s drive for a goal, and there are going to be obstacles but you’ll be rooting for them to achieve that goal. But as the script goes on, we think, maybe it would be better if Nick doesn’t achieve his goal!
Filmmaker: In the end, you’re not even sure who the movie has been about.
Kidd: There are a couple of movies in the last couple of years where you didn’t know whose movie it was to the last image. Crouching Tiger — you thought it was Chow Yun-Fat’s movie, but at the end you realized it was the young girl. With Bottle Rocket, the first image you see is Luke Wilson, and you think it’s his movie, and then at the end you realize it’s Owen Wilson’s movie. With Roger Dodger ending on a freeze frame, you have a moment to think back and make a decision about Nick’s character and where he’s going to go. The hardest thing to do in a movie is not have people know what is going to happen 20 pages away. You have to find ways to keep the audience interested, minute to minute, page to page. And if part of that is, “We’re not sure whose movie this is or who we are going to follow at the end,” then that’s all for the better.
Filmmaker: Since you started trying to make a feature in the early ’90s, how do you feel things have changed?
Kidd: I think it’s harder now. I feel like you can go back and see the first films of people 10 or 15 years ago and realize that they wouldn’t even make a ripple now. [A first feature] has to be great. I remember when I first got into school in ’91, I thought all you need to do is make a feature and then you’re a filmmaker. Now, it’s more like, “Oh, you’ve made a bad feature; you’ll never work again.” But it should be sort of Darwinian — there are only so many slots to go around, and hopefully they’re filled with scripts that have something to them.