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Travis Crawford peers into the dark world of James Fotopoulous.

At the age of 24, Chicago-based independent filmmaker James Fotopoulos has directed three feature films and 13 shorts, with two additional features currently in postproduction and another seven shorts in various stages of completion. But don’t worry, you’re forgiven if you’ve never heard of him. Although Fotopoulos’s two recent features received considerable acclaim at their New York Underground Film Festival premieres, his work is rarely screened outside of the indie festival circuit, and that’s not a situation that will change anytime soon. One of the most interesting young independent filmmakers in America today, Fotopoulos is also among the most marginal in terms of both the methods of his production and distribution.

The working-class son of a hairdresser and a cop, Fotopoulos self-finances his raw black-and-white 16mm films and shoots them in a matter of a few days, employing a spare aesthetic sense that seems inextricably intertwined with his means of production. The director, who works in a warehouse full-time, also self-distributes his own work – though again, this has largely been limited to select indie festival screenings (his debut feature, Zero, has received a limited commercial video release). Fotopoulos creates hypnotic, hermetic portraits of psychological collapse and societal dread; his stark, minimalist creep-outs possess the disturbing rhythm of unhealthy dreams. In fact, if you can recall that mind-set of drifting between sleep and consciousness during an illness, you can conjure the tone of a James Fotopoulos film.

His work has been compared to subcultural cinema’s two crowning Davids – Lynch and Cronenberg – and there are indeed similarities, both thematic (sexual unease manifesting itself in physiological mutations) and stylistic (his monochromatic cinematography and use of ambient noise are both very Eraserhead-esque), but these influences seem to be receding as he progresses, just as he also appears to be moving away from abstract avant-garde techniques into a more narratively focused cinema. It’s difficult to determine just where Fotopoulos fits into the American no-budget cinema landscape: approaching sensationalist subject matter (pornography, self-mutilation and so on) with a cerebral, formal rigor, his films seem to exist in a zone between the works of longtime mavericks Jon Jost and Rob Nillson, and the 1980s NYC "Cinema of Transgression" trips of Richard Kern and Nick Zedd.

Fotopoulos began directing short films at the age of 15 and initiated work on his first feature, Zero, three years later while enrolled at Columbia College (he later dropped out). Zero was a rather inauspicious debut, an undisciplined 142-minute ramble centered around a misogynist’s fetishization of a female mannequin. Incorporating stereotypical nightmare imagery and repellent hate-speeches from its sociopathic protagonist, Zero feels like the cinematic endurance-test equivalent of Sartre’s Nausea. In 1999 he delivered a striking follow-up feature with a degree of purity and control that is the antithesis of Zero’s self-indulgence. Migrating Forms, like Zero, takes place almost entirely within the confines of a dingy apartment inhabited by a lonely young man; in Forms, his isolation is broken by a purely carnal affair with a ragged blonde with a tail-like tumor on her back, a venereal infection that she transmits to her inexpressive lover. An obsessive and disquieting drone-poem of sexual discomfort, Migrating Forms is the definitive "morning after" movie, and with its narcotic mood and anamorphically distorted images of intertwined bodies, it vaguely resembles a 1960s sexploitation movie as interpreted by Alexander Sokurov.

Fotopoulos’s newest feature, Back against the Wall, marks another significant advance for the director. With its populous cast and vast array of locations, Back initially appears to be his most "normal" work to date, but closer inspection reveals that it’s actually his strangest and most confrontational. The film employs an enigmatic triptych narrative structure, but unlike other recent forays into this arena, there is no pleasure to be had from ascertaining how the film’s three protagonists interweave. The lost souls of Back don’t connect so much as they just fade away into their own torment, whether from forces internal (physical and mental disintegration) or external (dangerous involvement in a rural Midwestern fetish porn ring), with Fotopoulos creating a lurid La Ronde wherein he averts his gaze when one character’s suffering becomes too great, only to find the subsequent protagonist eventually repeating the same cycle of addiction and decay. And yet Back is the first of his features to display an assured gift for humor, and the final scene manages to be simultaneously apocalyptic, oddly poignant, and bluntly anticlimactic. Fotopoulos also continues to make shorter works, ranging in length from 34 seconds (Breathe) to 18 minutes (the haunting A Room), which are often more identifiably avant-garde than his features (his new two-part series The Circle is pure Abstract Expressionist collage). Breathe preceded Back against the Wall at its premiere at the 2001 New York Underground Film Festival, where I spoke with the affable and articulate director.


FILMMAKER: You seem to be very focused on creating personal, "underground" cinema at a time when so many other young directors use independent filmmaking as a way of breaking into more mainstream work. How much of this choice is conscious, and how much is just a natural extension of the economic realities of your type of filmmaking?

JAMES FOTOPOULOS: You have to deal with what you have to work with. My filmmaking is very instinctive and intuitive. The technological side of it is inseparable from what I do. You understand what your limitations are going to be because you’re stuck with them; you choose the film that you have the right opportunity to do at that time. If I was working in 35mm color and stereo [sound], I would pursue the same things I like to pursue now, but I would do it in a different way. So you’re emotionally conscious of your limitations, and you have to make that work. Sixteen millimeter is not 35mm – it doesn’t affect you the same way, and it’s never going to be as good-looking, so you have to integrate that into what you’re doing. The sound is never going to be as good, so you pursue ideas of how sound should be in that way. Right down to the lenses you use – I would love to get primes, but I never can afford them. So I get zooms. But you don’t undermine that, you make it work. The films I’ve made so far had to be in black and white, but there are films that I think should be in 35mm and color, so I haven’t made them yet for that reason. I would love to shoot in Scope! There are so many ways of communicating through film that I would love to explore, but economically I could never do it. It would have to be someone else’s money.

FILMMAKER: Apart from those financial limitations, do you foresee yourself expanding, either in the way you produce or distribute your work?

FOTOPOULOS: I have things that I want to do that would work with a bigger audience. I do work small, and I don’t [delegate] power much to other people on the set, although I try to keep people around who operate on the same wavelength. But I think a lot of great directors work as directors-for-hire. I could do that. It’s just another method of exploration.

FILMMAKER: What do your films typically cost to make, and how long does it take you to shoot them?

FOTOPOULOS: Zero cost about $16,000 – that was different because it was my first film. It was like an explosion. Migrating Forms cost $8,000 and was shot in two days. Back against the Wall was shot in six days for $26,000. You have to do them fast when you’re shooting that way. You have to maintain the people and keep equipment rentals down.

FILMMAKER: Even though those are exceptionally low budgets, it’s still money.Where do you raise the funds, and how do you recoup?

FOTOPOULOS: Recoup? On Migrating Forms, we took out a loan that we’re still paying off. The rest has been credit cards and money that we had saved. Back against the Wall has some of the wedding money given to me and my wife in it. Film has always been such a part of my life, so it’s not like I feel like I’m missing anything else.

FILMMAKER: So many of your contemporaries work in digital video, which would certainly help you save on production costs. But you seem pretty committed to film.

FOTOPOULOS: Actually, I will be using some video in [my next two features,] Christabel and Esophagus, but only for certain segments. I’m still not comfortable finishing a work on video. Film technology has to be taken down to the most basic thing of what it is, and I don’t see many people doing that. Video is good for recording a lot, but it flattens [the image] and it’s oppressive. I haven’t found a way to feel right about it yet. Film is the closest to our subconscious and the way we perceive the world.

FILMMAKER: But don’t you think a lot of that perception is simply rooted in the fact that we all grew up watching features shot on film, not video?

FOTOPOULOS: I think that may have a lot to do with it, but I think there’s something more tangible and physical about film as a medium, and with film technology, you can move concrete objects into a layered abstraction. I do feel like it’s closer to the way the eye sees. Maybe as time goes on and more people grow up not seeing film, it will be different, but film has that psychological advantage of [being able to] trick the brain with still images.

FILMMAKER: Do you like being so actively involved with the distribution and exhibition of your work?

FOTOPOULOS: No. I’d like to just make them and not do anything else. I don’t even like the money thing, but that’s a very utopian attitude. I would still like to have some involvement, but I would be happy if even a little of that part of it could be taken away and handled by someone else.

FILMMAKER: Although your short films remain quite abstract and experimental, your features seem to be moving toward a more narrative-driven approach. Is this a deliberate shift on your part, or do you even acknowledge a distinction between avant-garde and narrative cinema?

FOTOPOULOS: It’s not that crucial, it’s just a different way of understanding and feeling. With narrative elements, you’re trying to use film to penetrate reality. With a different kind of [filmmaking] technique, you can penetrate more abstract images and feelings. I try to merge the two. I like John Ford, and I like Stan Brakhage. Most people would say they’re polar opposites but they’re pursuing similar things in the same medium. They’re just doing it in different ways, so I tend to dissolve that type of thinking.

FILMMAKER: Well, it’s interesting to note that your newest feature, Back against the Wall, is in some ways your most "traditional" narrative film in its basic construction and yet also your most experimental film in execution. Were you concerned about alienating an audience with that three-tiered story structure?

FOTOPOULOS: It is the most experimental, and [more work] went into it. I think what’s so alienating about it is that, unlike my other films, where once you’re in them you know what they are, Back against the Wall has a façade of organization, but certain elements and characters keep creeping in and you realize that it isn’t going where you thought it was. It’s difficult, but I was trying to replicate the subjectivity of personal experience and integrate that within the film’s structure. I wasn’t worried, because I have faith in people. I never think that I’m making films just for some group of "elite" people who can understand; I make films hoping everyone can watch them. People aren’t stupid, and they need to be given a chance with things. Whatever happens, happens, but you never lose that faith.

FILMMAKER: Tell me about the two features you’re finishing now.

FOTOPOULOS: Christabel is based on a Coleridge poem. I’m using 16mm color and DV, and it’s all about manipulating layers. One of the reasons I like that poem is that it’s so interior – it’s like a barrage of imagery close to the type of fragmentation that I try to do in my movies. So the film will be extremely experimental, and very different from Back against the Wall. Esophagus takes place over 500-million years; it is very structured in different parts and also mixes different formats. But now I’m trying to start something in a more narrative vein, because I don’t want to do just those types of films. I’m very impatient and impulsive, and I want to start doing something right away instead of waiting until I really [am able to] pull something together. And then other ideas start creeping in. I shouldn’t really say anything, because I predict what things are going to be like, and then I’m completely wrong.

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