IONCINEMA.com’s IONCINEPHILE of the Month feature focuses on an emerging filmmaker from the world of cinema. This October, we put the spotlight on an indie personality who moonlights as a film critic/writer for the likes of The Village Voice and Filmmaker Magazine and who saw his feature film debut land in 2014 SXSW Film Festival’s Narrative Feature competition. Toplined by John Gallagher Jr. (Short Term 12) and Kate Lyn Sheil (Listen Up Philip) with supporting players in the shape of David Call (Gabriel), Katie Paxton and Louisa Krause (Bluebird), The Heart Machine (October 24th limited release/VOD FilmBuff) is according to the glowing remarks made in the trades with Variety calling it “thoroughly modern without being ostentatious” and THR dissecting it as “a thoughtful, emotionally tricky debut”. This month we profile Zachary Wigon — be sure to check out his top ten films of all time.
Eric Lavallee: During your childhood…what films were important to you?
Zachary Wigon: There were no films of particularly deep or unusual importance to me until I watched A Clockwork Orange when I was 11. I don’t think my parents had any idea what the film was about, or contained. I had read the novel and really enjoyed it, so I was curious to see the film. Needless to say, it was an alarming and highly stimulating experience. That’s the first time I can remember watching a film and being really stimulated by formal decisions – the fast-motion scene with 1812 Overture, the slow-motion fight scene, the garish inserts throughout. I loved reading growing up and often would watch film adaptations of novels after I read the novel, but I’d never experienced anything like that, at all. Kubrick became my favorite filmmaker and it was around then that I began developing an interest in films that competed with my interest in literature. I ended up watching all of Kubrick’s other films very quickly, and managed to convince my parents to let me see Eyes Wide Shut in theaters when it came out, at which point I was – alarmingly – 12. But his films stimulated me in a way that no other filmmaker’s would, frankly, for some time.
Lavallee: During your formative years what films and filmmakers inspired you?
Wigon: After Kubrick, the next set of films/filmmakers that really got me excited was when I discovered the French New Wave as an undergraduate at NYU’s film program. I watched a significant amount of films from that movement, but the three filmmakers whom I took a particular liking to were Godard, Marker and Resnais. They were the most aggressively formalist of the bunch and formalism has always fascinated me in cinema.
Lavallee: Digging into your background, I think back to the Cahiers du Cinema heroes from yesteryear, you’re reflections on cinema, innovation, the form, film theory and the industry come hand in hand with your creative output (one of my favorite pieces in the online American indie film media in the past couple of years was the interview you did with Antonio Campos for Simon Killer). Could you talk about the nature of this balance/imbalance and how film theory, film analysis ultimately feeds to your creativity. Wigon: Thanks, I’m so glad you enjoyed that interview – it was a lot of fun! I always feel a little funny when asked this question because I’m not sure how insightful I can be – I just think that no filmmaker works in a vacuum, we’re all influenced by those who have already pushed the medium forward, and so thinking deeply about what you respond to, what you believe works and doesn’t work in every film you see, these considerations are extremely important when it comes to determining what sort of cinema you feel you’re suited to make, since your best work will probably be work that you would be interested in watching more than anyone else. As for some of the more esoteric and difficult corners of film theory, it depends on the filmmaker, but for me film theory absolutely informs filmmaking practice because abstract concepts and insights in the medium can allow for me to think about various aspects of the form in new and exciting ways.
Lavallee: I was thinking back to Blow Out when watching The Heart Machine. While DePalma’s film is distractingly dated when it comes to the technology, but the moral transgressions and invasiveness found in technology are still common practise. Breaching topics such as romance in the digital age, identity and the co-habitation with technology, I was wondering what was at the genesis or “heart” of your screenplay (which idea did you first got jot down on paper) and secondly, how did it inform you of the worlds you created.
Wigon: The first idea I jotted down when I began writing the script was a different – and more farcical – permutation of what I ended up with. I jotted down the idea of a couple who meet over a dating website, who live in the same city, but decide to keep their relationship strictly virtual despite the fact that they could easily meet in person. The idea being that the control and distance and “safety” afforded by not meeting in person trumps whatever benefit might come from being with someone else, physically. Obviously the film’s concept ended up becoming less farcical and more realistic, but everything did grow from the central point of wanting to investigate the tradeoff between relationships that are mediated by technology and distance, and relationships that are carried out with both individuals in the same physical space.
Lavallee: Unlike say the recent Whiplash, you’re proof of concept short film was created after the feature. Could you please explain how you developed a sort of reverse process.
Wigon: The idea was a distillation of the concept and the essential narrative beats. A guy and a girl have a long-distance relationship, the guy begins to suspect the girl actually lives in the same city as him, he sets out to find her, and we examine what he turns up. That was the essence of the feature script at the time we made the short (although the feature script continued changing after the short was made), and those key beats were what comprised the short. So it was about narrative simplification.
Lavallee: With The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, this October is indeed an interesting month for dual perspectives/tapping into the male/female psyche from a shared relationship POV. And while not equally split, I think the film’s strongest suit is when we find a slight shift in perspectives. What was your intention here?
Wigon: Without wanting to spoil the film for viewers who haven’t yet seen it, I’ll say that the film is about, among other things, empathy and the idea that you can’t really know your romantic partner if there’s no element of trust and full disclosure. So one of the characters in the film is in the dark about the other, and the audience shares that relatively uninformed perspective. As the audience begins to learn more than the uninformed character, the audience begins to develop an empathy that the uninformed character doesn’t have, and the result is that the audience develops a very real understanding of how empathy is often tied to physical proximity and observation – to know someone, you really have to be granted an unimpeded view into the intimate details of their life, and this is something that we think technology affords us, but often that technology ends up misdirecting us.
Lavallee: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with your producers…
Wigon: The film’s producers, Lucas Joaquin and Alex Scharfman, were incomparably helpful in guiding the film toward what it wanted to be, with their highly intelligent and insightful notes. They both watched innumerable cuts of the film and engaged with me (and the editors) in long conversations about anything from the overall narrative structure to a specific shot in a specific scene. There are too many examples from which to draw, it was really a constant part of the process. Additionally, Lucas – who was the first person to board the project – would constantly be giving me new notes on the script throughout the film’s development process. It was a bit like working with a book editor, and there’s no question those notes helped the script enormously.
Lavallee: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with your cinematographer…
Wigon: I was really fortunate to work with a great DP, Rob Leitzell, who brilliantly executed some extremely complex camera maneuvers over the course of the film’s relatively short shoot. On the last day of filming we had a shot we wanted to accomplish which involved the camera panning 540 degrees between two characters while simultaneously dollying steadily backwards the entire time. Rob and his team managed to pull it off in six hours, which is really incredible.
Lavallee: Finally, can you discuss the collaborative process you had with your film editors…
Wigon: We had two fantastic editors who worked on the film, Lou Ford and Ron Dulin, and they were both integral in helping the film take shape. Lou has a great understanding of character and psychology, and we spent hours talking out the various characters’ states to make sure everything was coming across as we desired. Ron has a really singular sensibility, a very sophisticated kind of storytelling ability, and he and I really pored over the finer points of the film’s closing scenes, especially the final scene. I won’t discuss that scene in detail here, but I will say that the rather unusual manner in which the film’s ending is presented grew out of a long conversation Ron and I had in which we threw various thoughts out at one another and, eventually, something that we felt was original began to take shape. I was also struck by an edit Ron made in an early scene in the film, the scene in which Virginia goes on her Blendr date with an I-banker. Originally the scene played out entirely in a wide shot that slowly moves into a 2-shot by the end of the scene. Ron had the idea to play almost the entire scene out on a close-up of Virginia’s face, which I had never considered before, but which immediately struck me as a clever and formally inventive way to convey her isolation and anxiety. So that’s what we did.