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PETTING ZOO
Cam Archer examines teenage sexuality and social acceptance in his debut feature, Wild Tigers I Have Known.

BY MIKE PLANTE

WILD TIGERS I HAVE KNOWN DIRECTOR CAM ARCHER.

With a kind but unabridged eye, Cam Archer portrays the lives of teenagers in awkward gay love. His first feature, Wild Tigers I Have Known, opened a lot of eyes when it premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. It follows the shy but dare-taking Logan (Malcolm Stumpf) and his naïve pursuit of a cool, older teen, Rodeo (Patrick White). Logan attempts to transform himself into what he thinks Rodeo will desire, a move Archer handles stylishly but not with movie sappiness. Meanwhile, a mountain lion is on the loose in town.

Tigers is a logical extension of Archer’s earlier shorts, including bobbycrush and the American Fame series. Dreamy visuals of teenhood — cool hair, telephones, starkly lit bedrooms, troubled outsiders — are laid over structured soundtracks that blend distinctive background ambiences with catchy songs. On the surface of Tigers is a coming-of-age story, with a quirky kid trying to overcome the odds. But Archer takes the characters past an easy smartass-wins-all scenario. Instead of sabotaging the school principal, they stay inside a fantasy world where your room is a forest, you can float, and impossible love is within reach.

Archer is a fresh voice in American independent film, and he emerged from Sundance not as a mainstream wonder but as an artistic underdog. Lots of filmmakers are making nostalgia about teen love for other adults, but Archer is making art films for teens.

 

MALCOLM STUMPF IN CAM ARCHER’S WILD TIGERS I HAVE KNOWN.

Your short films are all 16mm and your feature is HD. What was it like shooting in this format? For the longest time we had it written into our budget that we’d be shooting on film, but ultimately we could not afford it. Everyone wants to shoot [his or her] movie on film, or at least I still do. We probably shot too much footage. With [our shorts] we would just buy a certain amount. It’s not like we had more sitting in the freezer in case we needed it. We bought all that we could afford and we had to really be careful. But with [HD] we shot over 60 hours, I think. For my short bobbycrush, the shooting ratio I believe was 1.5 to 1.

You ended up reshooting stuff too, right? We did last December. It was crazy. We wanted to do reshoots, but one of the actors was under house arrest. We weren’t allowed to go inside, so we were going to have one of his family members run sound inside the house while we shot from outside through the windows at him. I was leaving messages for his parole officer, and it finally worked out — he was able to take a couple days away from his house arrest.

Your visuals are always heavily stylized. Were you trying to represent the viewpoints of your teen characters? I think it comes from my days at UC Santa Cruz. Very early on [the teachers there] encouraged us not to rely on, or use at all, any sort of sync sound. I hated them for pushing that on us, but then I grew to love it. It forced Aaron [Platt, longtime friend and cinematographer] and I to come up with a new, original way of telling the not-so-new, or original, stories we wanted to tell. The characters in my films are rather conventional. They want things that other people want, but in their minds, and in the world of the film, these things are anything but conventional, which I love.

Because you use such a diverse palette of costumes, sets, props and colors, people seem to wonder what time period this film is supposed to be set in. To me it doesn’t really matter. It’s whenever you want it to have taken place, I guess. There’s nothing historical here. No truths. It’s about emotion, style and the search for identity. It’s a film about a kid’s first crush, which is a very emotional, visual experimental time, so why not let the film be something of an experiment? Aren’t people sick of the same old indies, with their handheld cameras and reality TV acting? I sure am. I like filmmakers like [Alejandro] Jodorowsky. I’ll watch one of his films and there will be stuff I don’t get, and maybe he doesn’t get it either, but it really doesn’t matter. I’ll create my own meaning.

Are you using mountain lions to represent the raging hormones of puberty? Or is a lion just a lion? Puberty is a lion — I like that. Originally, the lion was supposed to represent the outcast, or the things we know nothing about but are told to despise and want dead. So Logan identifies with the lion, feels surrounded by the “tigers” at his school, and wants nothing more than to be left alone, living independently of the madness, the close-mindedness and the hatred. I don’t know. It made sense when I wrote it. Puberty is a fucking beast, isn’t it? It’s just a question of when that beast’s going to visit you and when it’s going to be done with you.

How do you go about casting kids? Especially when you want real kids, not “professionals.” Kids aren’t really actors, you know. They’re told, maybe by a parent or a casting director who has spotted them, that they are actors when they’re young. Things like, “Oh, you are such a performer.” The next thing you know they’re [getting parts]. But there are so few kids who can actually become someone else the way that adults can. So what Aaron and I have always done is just wait for moments when either the kids are being themselves [in ways appropriate for the character] or we shoot endless amounts of takes trying to get the right performance. I think the kids do a great job in the movie, but one of the things I was always stressing to them is to listen to what the other actor in the scene was saying. They often don’t listen [to the other actor]. They just wait for their line. They just want to get through the scene to prove that they’ve memorized it. A lot of the most powerful moments [in the film] are when the actors are standing out in nature, looking into the camera. The viewers can get their own meaning out of it. I don’t know, what does Larry Clark do? [laughs]

In your shorts you used friends as actors. With the feature you got kids who want to act. How does the vibe on the set change when the parents are there? The energy changed. There were so many people working on this film. To go from working with Aaron, myself and Stephanie [Volkmar, the costume designer] to having a team of people crowding around a monitor and parents sitting on the couch while we’re doing a scene about “How big is your penis?” As the writer-director, everybody is watching you. [It becomes like,] “Okay, let’s just get through this scene.” It changed the way I would have gone about it had it been just a couple kids and us. If the actor’s mom is in the other room and we’re doing a scene where he is masturbating. Nobody masturbates while their mom is in the other room.

Did you modify your content in any way from the script once you embarked on this more “professional” style of production? I think I toned it down for the most part. The script was a lot more explicit. There was one scene where the Logan character puts on lipstick and then he kisses Joey on the hand. When I told the actors I took that out they were so excited. I found myself almost censoring parts. Was that a good idea in the end? I don’t know. Did it have something to do with the parents and the large crew? I don’t know. Looking back, I realize I shouldn’t have given up on things that maybe could have worked or that we should have at least tried.

Audiences who see your films always want to know if they are autobiographical. I was a kid who had an uneventful childhood, who stayed home and wrote little stories, read books, nerded out and watched too much television. I was very much like my older brother, who ended up doing the sound for all my films. He was just old enough that he was starting to do things before me — getting into trouble. I would see how that affected my parents, so then that kind of made me shut down in a way and just be this kid who would rather sit around and daydream than go out and actually create things. I think that part from me is definitely in Logan. He basically gets what he wants for the time being, then ultimately gets rejected or whatever or shut out from the world that he thinks he wants to be a part of. But I wasn’t hanging out with mountain lions as a kid.

How did the Sundance lab affect the script? There are two schools of thought about that process. Some people think it’s great to get help, while others think, “The script is mine, and now a bunch of other people are working on it.” This is the first film project where I had a script. Before, [I just had] notes or I would come up with a shot or we had these actors, and then that would determine what the movie would be. I wrote the script and then went to the lab thinking, “Oh, this is going to be weird. People don’t know how I work.” But I realized in the lab that it is important to have a really tight script. I’m proud of the script. It really does work, and there are character arcs and everything. The movie is a big mess, and I’m proud of that mess as well, but it’s totally different. So, yes, the lab definitely helped me learn how to write a story. As far as how to tell that story visually, I’m still learning that one. Maybe it had to do with having short days and having to rush through scenes and not liking those scenes in the editing room — I don’t know.

What kind of discussions were there in the lab? Working on story, concentrating on what was at stake for Logan, the main character, and working on that character arc and the idea of plot points and a climax. I actually didn’t take notes every meeting. I’d meet [with the advisers] and then I’d go back to my little cabin and write down the stuff that I remembered. I think it was [screenwriter] Frank Pierson who said, “You’re only going to use the stuff you remember.”

After your shorts played Sundance and you were in the lab, did producers or financiers offer to fund the feature? Yeah. I turned down Bunim-Murray. They’re the producers from The Real World. I’ve spoken about this in nearly every interview and nobody has printed it.

Really? Yeah, they were going to give us $500,000, which, at the time, was 10 times the amount I thought that we needed to make Tigers. Nobody believed me when I told them that we needed that little — and they were right, because we spent $70,000. Bunim-Murray wanted to have a say in casting, they wanted final cut — the typical story — and then I thought about Real World. MTV misrepresenting youth culture for the past 20 years? Should I jump on that boat too? I thought, “I’ll just find another way to get the money.” Also they were going to delay it so that we would maybe be shooting it this summer. They wanted to do some rewrites.

And I hear the edit was an experience? Yeah, after Sundance, and several months away from the project, I went back into the editing room to swap out music [the film] couldn’t afford. What was supposed to take only a few days and only have to do with the music turned into a three-week, scene-by-scene reedit. A total restructuring of the film. I hadn’t really watched the film since just before Sundance, so it was like everything was fresh and new to me. I was in there reloading tapes, using alternate takes, putting in new footage, new scenes and then deleting about 20 minutes from the Sundance cut. I was working by myself, no one was giving me advice, so there were times when I really questioned whether or not what I was doing was good for the film. I was taking yet another risk on what had already been a risky project. I was tinkering away, changing the film — its tone, its scenes — dramatically. I’m so much happier with the new cut, and it’s like the Sundance, New Directors/New Films version never existed.

What happened to you as a kid to end up making these films? Actually my parents and brothers are very supportive. One of the problems I do have with them though — [they think] everything I do is great. Seriously, their support is what kept me going. Oh, I know — I had fainting spells.

When you were a kid? Like from ages 10 to 12. I would just faint. It used to happen a lot.

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HOW THEY DID IT

PRODUCTION FORMAT: HD.

CAMERA: Sony F900 with a Fujinon 5-50mm HD Cine Style Zoom lens.

EDITING SYSTEM: Final Cut 5 on an IMac G5.

COLOR CORRECTION: Spirit HD and da Vinci 2K plus at Spypost, SF.


GO BACK AND WATCH...

A FAMILY FINDS ENTERTAINMENT: Ryan Trecartin’s 2004 video, which was selected for the Whitney Biennial, is a color-saturated, helium voiced hallucinogenic journey into the afterlife of a young gay boy run over by a car just after coming out to his parents.

MYSTERIOUS SKIN: Gregg Araki’s 2004 movie uses moments of fantasy to tell the story of two young boys remembering their childhood sexual abuse.

GUMMO: Harmony Korine’s 1997 feature upends narrative conventions as it follows the casual adventures of two kids living in a psychically shook up rural American small town.

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