In experimental filmmaker Zachary Epcar’s shorts, performers enact cryptically evocative fragments of obscure melodramas, their truncated lines and gestures radiating an unease captured almost exclusively on 16mm and shot in Epcar’s native Bay Area. It’s a locale whose stretches of residential anonymity the filmmaker often exploits. With his third short, 2014’s Under the Heat Lamp an Opening, Epcar had a breakthrough when he discovered the power of continuity editing after uniting footage he’d shot at an outdoor restaurant in Barcelona—well-heeled diners eating in bright sunlight, grandiosely captured in a mirrored ceiling above—with close-up insert shots, staged a few years later in his backyard, of performers reciting stilted dialogue and interacting with servers. At Bard College, Epcar had studied under Peter Hutton, whose work often used images of natural landscapes or the bodies of water he regularly sailed, so “landscape films were important, but anytime I tried to recreate the conditions for that kind of work, there was something always missing for me. It took a few years before I realized that I could take that material, find these points of intervention [and] use that as raw material to then go in and introduce elements of fiction.”
While in high school, Epcar was drawn to American independent films like Donnie Darko and Pi. “As a 13-year-old,” he was able to understand that these works contained “some element of the achievable” but was “always eager to dig deeper.” A regular in San Francisco’s punk and art scenes, Epcar “was interested in figuring out what [their] film equivalent would be,” and rentals from the now-shuttered Le Video helped orient him. Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage and Peter Rose’s 1981 The Man Who Could Not See Far Enough were among his early viewings. The latter speaks to Epcar’s ongoing interest in Bay Area filmmaking, especially the climax, when the filmmaker nervewrackingly scales the Golden Gate Bridge—the image of “one hand holding on to the ropes with a black glove, the other ostensibly holding a Bolex, was totally mind-blowing.” He continued his viewing at the San Francisco Art Institute, where the collection of work included Kenneth Anger, whose psychodramas helped Epcar as he continued thinking through his narrative influences. One year at PRAMU in Prague was followed by recently completed graduate work at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where Epcar completed half of his course of study before moving back to the Bay Area just as the pandemic was beginning.
Epcar’s seven shorts to date have regularly premiered at high-profile festivals like TIFF and NYFF. Currently in development, his first feature, The Syndrome, is a logical extension of their iterations of heightened melodramatic states staged in distinctly American contexts. Materials for the project include an eight-page treatment co-written by Patrick Harrison (a cinema studies major and longtime friend of Epcar’s) and Patrick Galligan (a lawyer by trade and regular writing collaborator with Harrison), which reads in a distinctly DeLillo vein while unfolding a torrid melodrama about American civil servants struck, one by one, by the mysterious “Havana syndrome.” Epcar plans to work with producer Bingham Bryant (co-director of For the Plasma) and enlist fellow experimental filmmaker Mary Helena Clark to act as a 16mm cinematographer.
The impulse to make a feature emerged “without urgency” while Epcar was in graduate school. Unlike narrative film, he notes, “in experimental film, there’s not that sense of inevitability” about making a feature because “the short form is just as important.” Instead, the project derives from the same desire for fellow travelers that drew Epcar to DIY scenes and experimental film in the first place, as well as “a feeling of wanting more collaboration, which feels entirely necessary at this point. I’m really needing to get out of my own head with things. Between the hierarchies of commercial cinema and the factory-model division of labor there, and the lone wolf mythologies of the avant-garde, there’s so much room to explore alternatives for working collaboratively.” That includes Epcar’s work with the experimental programming collective Light Field and his investment in experimental film as a whole: “At this point the films do pay for themselves, but they’re far from anything that I’m getting a living wage from. What does make it feel sustainable, and makes it continue to feel like a world I feel really invested in, is what drew me in from the beginning—the real, concrete fact of community and sociality.”—VR/Image: Semaj Peltier