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IONCINEPHILE of the Month: Travis Gutiérrez Senger (Desert Cathedral)

IONCINEPHILE of the Month

IONCINEPHILE of the Month: Travis Gutiérrez Senger (Desert Cathedral)

IONCINEMA.com’s IONCINEPHILE of the Month feature focuses on an emerging filmmaker from the world of cinema. A winner at the SXSW and Tribeca Film Festivals for his docu short White Lines and the Fever: The Death of DJ Junebug, this month we feature American indie helmer Travis Gutiérrez Senger.

Leaving his family, debt and a series of VHS camera tape-recorded diary-like trail of bread crumbs behind, a formidable Lee Tergesen serves up a small window into the psychologically damaged and distressed. Cleverly embedding actual found testimonial footage, Senger’s Desert Cathedral hypothesizes that there is a darker matter in the human psyche that is worth exploring regardless if this walk a mile in this man’s shoes offers a resolution with more questions.

This directorial debut had its world premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival and showing at the American Film Festival in Poland, Random Media opens Travis Gutiérrez Senger’s Desert Cathedral on VOD this September 27th and just prior to that, there’ll be special theatrical events in NY, LA, and Seattle. Below we briefly touched upon Senger’s working process. Here is our profile and make sure to check out his Top Ten Films of All Time.

Eric Lavallee: During your childhood, what films were important to you?
Travis Gutiérrez Senger: During my childhood a film that was really important to me was Cinema Paradiso. I was an alter boy, and like the kid in the film, I used to fall asleep on the alter. (This was pretty representative of what I thought about the whole experience.) My family would tease me about that so when we all saw the film everybody would laugh. I like the idea of the movie theatre as a special place and Cinema Paradiso celebrates that: The kids smoking, jacking off, the audience, laughing, crying—I think at one point a couple is making love in the back. I also like that the film is about the watchers watching. There is a certain love for the audience or the idea of audience in that film that is very nice.

Lavallee: During your formative years, what films and filmmakers inspired you?
Senger: 
The filmmakers that inspired me most in my early years were Fellini, and PT Anderson. In high school, I read a book on Fellini about the magic of cinema, autobiography, and “lying,” which really intrigued me and that’s when I started seriously watching films. Prior to that I wanted to be a writer. I was into people like Rimbaud, the Beats and stuff high school kids are into. But it wasn’t until I saw Magnolia and the Magnolia Diary where PT Anderson is all wired that I really started thinking that was what I wanted to do.

I didn’t like the film right away, but I kept watching it and eventually, I fell in love with camera language, the design of the picture, and the fucked up characters seeking redemption. For a high school kid seeing Tom Cruise scream, “Obey the cock,” and then end up crying next to a dying Jason Robards, that hits you and makes you feel like anything is possible with the medium. Like Boogie Nights, Magnolia is very funny, very sad, and incredibly stylish and it had a big impact on me.

I think filmmakers often have a deep connection to the films that first introduce them to cinema and then you get into the films those filmmakers are into. For me it was Anderson so then I went into Ophuls, Altman, Scorsese, etc… I also really thought Iñárritu was something special right away and loved seeing guys like Gael García Bernal on screen; that started with Amores Perros and I’ve paid very close attention to his career as well.

Lavallee: Prior to your feature debut, you worked in the short form in both fiction and non-fiction. Could you discuss the possible obstacles you might have encountered in your writing process and how working in those forms and the process of sifting through the material at hand aided in the process.
Senger: With Desert Cathedral I knew the characters were not going to say too much and that the logic of the main character’s super objective would be challenging to understand. A good deal of the script development process was trying to find ways to have the character say something without saying it. This is a very tricky kind of writing and was challenging. There can be an opacity that comes with that, the trick is to fill in that opacity while not intruding on who the characters really are.

Desert Cathedral came at time of transition for me where I was moving away from non-fiction and becoming more interested in my own characters and ideas. That said, when it came to ultimately making the decision to use the archival elements it was, in part to address the opacity of the main character and add depth and penetration into his psyche while still being true to who he was as a character.

Adding the archival was something I had always wanted to do, but originally, the family would not let me review that material. They would tell me about it, but I always thought weaving that into the film would be cool because I knew it existed and thought the idea of implementing what is real/imagined could tie in thematically to the film and the main character’s POV as he himself seems to lose touch with reality.

Lavallee: Could you discuss the significance and creative importance of the inclusion of actual footage. Did these moments serve as aesthetic or narrative footnotes or filters to possibly guide the viewer into his psyche.
Senger: Yes, absolutely, the archival elements gave us insight into his psyche and created a texture and technique we thought was very interesting and unique. We liked that it takes you into a sort of third space when you’re watching it where you feel “out of your mind” but hopefully not “out of the movie.”

Lavallee: Seasoned actor Lee Tergesen had what I assume was a daunting challenge in terms of multi-tiered performances where how things are being said have a more implied meaning than the actual text. What kind of working process did you use to enhance his perf?
Senger: I am very proud of Lee and the work he did in the film. It took a lot of courage to take on the role and he immersed himself into the role by gaining weight, growing a beard and taking us through the psychological demise of the character.

As you mention, the text does not say exactly what the character feels, the performance has to give us the meaning. Many of the actual tapes the man left were surprisingly technical. There is actually a tape that is an instructional guide on how to use the home computer and handle the winding up of his personal business. I tried to capture that in his resignation tape in the film where Lee is very robotic. The idea is that the uncanny nature of the tape gives way to an insight into the character; a man who on the outside seems very ordinary and normal, but on the inside is mixed up very bad.

Lee himself has an intensity and a wrestling soul, so it was really about trying to harness that and focus it through this character who is elusive and unpredictable.

Lavallee:  While watching I was thinking a lot about William H. Macy’s character in Fargo, where family meets a sacrificial lamb fate when debt appears insurmountable. In your opinion or from the research you gathered, do the sexes act/re-act differently to the same quandary?
Senger: The themes of a personal financial crisis, emasculation and violence run deep in the film. In this case the violence is inflicted upon the self. In the U.S, there is this idea of valuing your self worth based on your financial worth. What I think happens with this type of value system is when peoples finances are depleted, they snap. This is the dark part of the American Dream, which we explore in the film.

I don’t know if men and woman respond to this differently, but my experience with the family is that the wife and daughter only saw the absurdity in it. There was no sense that this was a martyr story, but rather a psychological breakdown that was very sad and strange.

Lavallee: You employ the services of master-craftsmen in Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans. What kind of creative collaboration did you have with the pair prior to moving into studio space.
Senger: We spoke about the story and the musical palette for the film, which ultimately was organic instruments with some desert sounds, but mostly percussion, cello, and very muted tones. We also spoke about not having the music create predictable emotional motifs; to keep the film active, unpredictable and alive.

Lavallee: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with Coll Anderson?
Senger: Working with Coll Anderson was a really interesting experience. Coll works out his studio in Woodstock, which is really just this cabin in the woods with all this incredible equipment. It’s just him and an assistant. It’s very different from most post houses I’ve worked in where you have people running around, and looking over your shoulder. It’s incredibly quiet and you can really focus. Coll is an artist and a very thoughtful, very smart. For both of us the sound was as important as every other department, a character in the film.

Lavallee: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans?
Senger: The composers Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi were really critical to the film. During the last 10 minutes of the film there is no dialogue, it’s all visual storytelling, but it’s really the cue that is driving the experience and carries us into the climax. It has this incredible percussion and cello that rocks you. It’s elegant with a touch of heavy metal, which we needed to punctuate the climax. Their early passes at the cue were very bold, very strong and we worked to simplify it a little and then adjust it to the timing of the edit very precisely.

They became great allies through the process. We ended up loving the music so much we used stems from their cues as part of our sound design; they became motifs for how the character felt. Since the character is very good at hiding his mental illness, these sounds were signifiers of his emotional state. Alan Capriles the additional editor and Coll Anderson did a lot of work with me placing these and making them feel subliminal.

Lavallee: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with Michael Ragen…
Senger: Cinematographer Michael Ragen was incredibly valuable on the film as well. It was both Mike and my first feature, which was very exciting. We had a veteran line producer in Chip Hourihan and that helped, but a lot of the experience was Mike and I laying out shots and discovering the film together. He captured the surreal beauty of the desert, which is what I was looking for, and also captured the magic, vastness, grandeur and ugliness. The landscape is often representative of the physical space, but also the character’s internal space. Mike did a great job at this and also helped hone in on the nuances of Lee’s performance. The character seems ordinary on the outside, but inside is messed up very bad. Mike’s use of close ups and extreme close ups helped bring out the subtlety of his mental state and help the audience focus on the character.

For more info on the film, head on over to the official website.

Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist and critic at IONCINEMA.com (founded in 2000). Eric splits his time between his home base in Montreal, NYC, and is a regular at Sundance, Cannes and TIFF. He has a BFA in Film Studies at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013 he served as a Narrative Competition Jury Member at the SXSW Film Festival. Top 3 from 2016: Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt), Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve), Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)

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