IONCINEMA.com’s IONCINEPHILE of the Month feature focuses on an emerging creator from the world of cinema. Baltimore-based filmmaker Theo Anthony saw his feature debut begin its film festival life at the 2016 Locarno Film Festival with prestige showings at major showcases such as Rotterdam, SXSW and Hot Docs to follow. Produced by MEMORY’s Sebastian Pardo and Riel Roch-Decter, Rat Film opens in NYC, Chicago and Baltimore on September 15th with a Los Angeles and national release to follow in October. See if it is playing in your city here and make sure to read Part 2 of our profile – Theo Anthony’s Top Ten Films of All Time.
Eric Lavallee: During your childhood … what films were important to you?
Theo Anthony: I actually watched really bad films growing up. I’m one of four brothers, and we’d always get in the biggest fights about what to get at Blockbuster. We still give our Mom shit for making us watch “Moonstruck”. We were a “drink-microwaved-chocolate-milk-while-watching-America’s-Funniest-Home-Videos” kind of family.
Lavallee: During your formative years what films and filmmakers inspired you?
Anthony: Like I said I didn’t grow up watching “good” films or whatever canon you’re supposed to have watched in order to be a proper filmmaker. Formatively, I think Wet Hot American Summer is responsible for an embarrassing amount of my personality. My favorite movie all throughout high school was The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou . I came across Charlie Kaufman, Miranda July, and Harmony Korine during this time too. Blooper reels and other DVD menu extras have always been close to my heart.
Lavallee: At what point did you know you wanted to be involved in film?
Anthony: I first got into writing and photography in high school, and my interest in filmmaking grew out of that. In high school my best friend Ben Goodman and I would make skate videos, short films, and commercials. I learned most of what I know now about cameras and editing just from watching Ben work. All of these came together in making music videos throughout college, which is essentially just a documentation of me learning how to edit and shoot and animate. But music videos and other commercial work felt like an impotent and self-satisfied vessel to engage with politics and history and all of the other things I want to engage with. With documentary, I finally found a vessel that seemed capable enough to do that. Documentary, in it’s broadest most ambiguous usage, seems to me the outlet that I’m able to most honestly express who I am and my relation to the world.
Lavallee: You were already familiar with the backdrop of Baltimore, so my egg before chicken question is about the genesis: how did you find the project, theme, subject or how did it find you?
Anthony: Practically speaking, the film started with that iPhone shot of the rat in the trash can. I came home one night, heard a noise, and started filming. For me, emotionally, the film was a really earnest and personal attempt to try to understand the history of Baltimore, and to document my process of trying to understand it and my own place within it. There were a number of different threads that I had been researching, and there was a point at which I realized that they were all different sides of the same mysterious shape. It was at that point that I knew I had a larger project.
Lavallee: Viewing this film was something akin to how I first felt well watching Glazer’s Under the Skin. You employ a computerized sounding narrative voice and what one could be deemed as a score friendly or attune to life forms. Can you describe those aural aesthetic choices.
Anthony: I really like that film, though I’ve never heard anyone compare my work to that. That’s really cool you see that though. I think the sound design throughout is intentionally distancing and never one-to-one with what you see on-screen. When I was writing the script for the narration, I was using Siri’s text-to-speech to try out different combinations of image and text. Ultimately, we decided to go with Maureen Jones, who was absolutely amazing in her performance. So much of my direction was directly counter to her training. We didn’t want it to be relatable, we wanted as cold and exacting as possible—something to call to mind the voice of God we’re so accustomed to in classical documentary but at the same time to undermine that. There was a lot of flexibility in that voice, to slip from the clinical to the poetic and then back again.
For the sound design, I worked with Matt Davies over at Studio Unknown right outside of Baltimore. It was really important that everyone involved in the production and post-production of the film was local. A sound designer from New York isn’t going to to know what Baltimore sounds like. A colorist from Los Angeles isn’t going to know the color palette of this city.
Lavallee: Pardon the pun, but there is a sort of cat and mouse game here about the baiting process. It demonstrates ingenuity and intelligence from both the human and rat species. What was your initial reaction when you found people that make trapping rodents into a sport?
Anthony: Yeah, sure, I mean the film is called “Rat Film” but it’s not really about rats. So to extend this pun, I wouldn’t say it’s so much cat and mouse as a bait and switch. The film takes whatever assumptions you have about rats and uses that to try to dive deeper into the people and places and histories that the rat brings together.
It was a friend of mine Dave Manigault, who is also a super talented filmmaker, that brought rat fishing to my attention. It’s a bit of local folklore that basically died out in the 90s, and for the purposes of the film we revived it. Will and Greg Kearney, the rat fishers, are actors, and it’s important to be as straightforward about that as possible. I mean, yes, we were actually there fishing for rats all night, so there is certainly a documentary element to that. But no, Will and Greg do not fish for rats on their own. My documentary work very consciously tries to engage with the staged nature of documentary, but that decision to stage that scene has definitely pissed off a lot of people. And, having some distance now and answering this exact same question a million times, I have a much more expansive understanding why than when it was just me alone in my attic putting together this film. I think that that scene in particular assumes a creative or poetic license over a history and geography that is just not mine to play with, and in doing so joins the very history of representation that the film sets out to critique. The film is what it is, I’m proud of that, but I don’t think that particular scene is a decision that I would make again.
Lavallee: As the correlated data implicitly suggests a much more widespread problem than pest control, when you’re constructing a film as such how much of your editorial choices are made on how auds might receive it?
Anthony: My work tries to stand in opposition to the social issue documentary that sets out with a clear-cut agenda. I think that films like this reveal both the filmmaker’s fear and their assumption of stupidity in the viewer. The filmmaker is afraid that the stupid audience will come to a the conclusion that they don’t want. It’s an injustice to these very real social issues to solidify and propagate a non-critical way of engaging with the world where we expect clear solutions. As I’m learning right now, it’s the hardest thing to accept that as a filmmaker, as an artist, as a human that the intentions you set out with don’t match up with the impact that they will have out there in the world. I am trying to listen to every reaction, to recognize every one as valid, and to have that improve the way that I deliver on my intentions moving forward.
Lavallee: I particularly enjoyed this duel ingenuity found in both species with a main take away is we are much closer to the rat species than we would care to admit. Do you have a more fond appreciation for awful governing and our four legged friend?
Anthony: I think that the film very deliberately seeks resonances in the treatments of humans and the treatment of rats, but at no point does it try to set an equivalency. I think that in looking at the ways that rats have adapted to their environments, their intelligence and wit and resilience, I absolutely have a deeper appreciation for them. In looking at the ways that humans actively construct and adapt to their environments, but also survive and create and love, I have a deeper understanding and empathy that has an infinite amount of space to grow.
Lavallee: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with Dan Deacon?
Anthony: Dan Deacon been such a huge figure for me in my life. Some of my best, earliest memories of going to shows when I was a teenager were going to Dan Deacon shows. Dan had seen some of my earlier works, and at some point he just came to me and said, “I want my music to be paired with your images”, and I was like “Funny you should say that…”. It built out from there. Our collaboration was really special—we didn’t have any rules or expectations and together we developed a common language. I’m not a musician and Dan’s not a filmmaker, but it felt like we were trying to access the same higher idea through our different skill sets. There was nothing precious or set about our process, I’d have an edit that he’d develop some ideas for and then I’d change the edit based on that and then he’d change the score. And back and forth like that until we had found an equilibrium that we were both happy with. Working with Dan has been one of the best things I’ve ever done, and it’s forever changed the way that I will approach collaborations going forward.
Lavallee: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with Matt Davies?
Anthony: Matt Davies was our sound designer mastermind on the project. There’s an incredibly thorough process and story to every creative decision he makes. It’s never just a matter of “hey this sounds cool”. Just an example—Matt used to have pet rats, and would notice that when they were stressed or excited their eyeballs would twitch. So, Matt actually went and found out that the resonant frequency of the human eyeball, and placed those sounds throughout the film in key moments so that you’d feel a slight pressure on your eyeballs. It’s something you would never know if someone didn’t tell you, but it’s just once example of the ingenuity and obsessively researched process that Matt brought to the table.
Lavallee: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with Andrew Holter?
Anthony: We approached the archive as another terrain in this film that could be explored and mapped in different ways. Andrew Holter was my research assistant, but he was so much more than that, he was my co-navigator. He would take certain strands or ideas I had and then dive into the library system and re-emerge with just these amazing images and documents that built on our conversations in the most generative and inspiring way. There is no way this film would be what it was without Andrew’s help and guidance.