The New Tenants’ Day from Hell Leads to an Oscar
Who hasn’t had a day where ‘everything breaks down in a bucket of hell?’ We’ve all had such an experience – chances are, several – and are gloomily here to vent. But what are the odds that two people move into a NYC apartment and the very next day, four uninvited guests ring the doorbell and are systematically annihilated in the dining area, right before the flabbergasted couple’s eyes? Well, you say, it is New York City after all – but still…
The magician behind this ‘bucket of hell’ is Danish-born, the seriously hilarious director Joachim Back. His ability to find humor in adversity comes from overcoming personal tragedy. During a lengthy telephone interview he explains, ‘When I recall the absurdity of my own existence, I understand life better. I lost my dad at an early age. In fact, death played a major role throughout my life. The way I look at it, everyone will end up in a box someday, so we need to find humor in this.’
The chances of a 21-minute tragicomedy, concocted by outsiders, actually winning an Oscar is every bit absurd as the film itself. Yet it happened, in spite of non-believers like Tim Grierson of the Phoenix New Times, and A.O. Scott of the New York Times, and that’s a great lesson for all us dreamers of the impossible. According to Back, a director of commercials for Park Pictures, LLC, ‘It all happened about four years ago when a Danish producer read an interview about me in a 2006 advertising publication. He sent me a 7-page script written by Anders Thomas Jensen, and I loved it! Immediately, I sent it to my friend, Sam Bisbee and said, I think we can do something great with this concept! Then I contacted our friend, Dave Rakoff, who is a prize-winning novelist, and the idea became a reality.’
David Rakoff is a 45-year-old writer who is also a superb actor. Modest as he is, he claims, ‘I’m by no means a professional. Acting is just a hobby I dabble in every so often.’ Rakoff plays Frank in the film. Frank is a middle aged gay man who moves into a tiny apartment with his partner Peter (Jaimie Harrold). Surrounded by moving boxes, we soon discover that this seemingly mismatched couple share a history of tension. For one thing, Frank is a chain-smoking, passive-aggressive who can’t seem to stop ranting about the world’s irresolvable problems. Peter, on the other hand, is the younger, more elegant of the pair. He doesn’t say much, in fact pretty much stares in disbelief, in answer to Frank’s graphic whining. That is, until he blows up and eventually tells Frank, ‘Maybe a bout of throat cancer may finally shut you up!’ At this moment, the door buzzer sounds and a tiny old woman with bright orange hair and garish, blue eye shadow, is seen through the peephole. Grandma (Helen Hanft) arrives asking for flour to bake cinnamon buns for her granddaughter Irene (Liane Baloban). After all, ‘these buns are what keeps us together,’ she says. Insisting he has none, Frank suggests she ask the neighbors downstairs. It is here that Grandma spills that the neighbors were slaughtered along with prior tenant, Jerry. She also hints that Irene used to visit Jerry often. To end the banter, Peter miraculously appears with a gallon-size, Ziplock bag of flour and shuts the door in Grandma’s face while she continues to speak.
Frank returns to Solitaire and smoking while Peter rebels, munching chips and abandoned shish kabob. As they exchange glares, the buzzer sounds again and
Jan (Vincent D’Onofrio) bolts in wielding a crowbar and tearful, on a vendetta against the culprit who slept with his wife, Irene. He is eventually blasted away by a shell-shocked, yet eloquent, addict named Zelko (Kevin Corrigan). Seeking his large stash of heroin, the articulate, disturbingly out of sync Zelko loudly explains that the drug resembles flour.
Deliberately downplaying his writing, Rakoff explains, ‘I adapted Jensen’s 7-page script that had all the mechanics of plot, general bones of the story and even some of the dialogue. I could never in my wildest dreams have thought of such a plot!’ Both Rakoff and Back recall that the scenario and characters seem familiar and have all surfaced before, as in the 1991 Oscar-winner, The Lunch Date by Adam Davidson. ‘I sought to dig deeper into the relationship between this couple that are pretty much blamed for everything that happens. I wanted to explore looks…eyes. Certain eyes are worth 1,000 words. I borrow this type of storytelling from my commercials,’ says Back.
Skillful editing is another key to the film’s success. In many ways, British born editor, Russell Icke cuts scenes much like Alfred Hitchcok’s Rope.
‘In order to create confining, discomfort, I tried to hold back on a character as long as I could. Why cut away if the scene works?’ Icke asks.
Certain narrative filmmakers can trick us into believing we are viewing a documentary. Indeed, in the opening scene, Frank is shown claustrophobically, in a series of back shots, grotesque profiles and abstract, frontal close-ups. Ever so slowly, he is revealed – yet always de-contextualized, through the masterful lighting and cinematography of
Pawel Edelman (Roman Polanski’s The Pianist). Aside from documentary-style visuals, language itself is used to trick us into thinking what we voyeuristically hear, is truly taking place. According to Icke, ‘This first scene posed the greatest challenge to me. Usually, you open with a wide shot that provides context. Scene One is just the opposite, and even though it’s disorienting, it works!’ he exclaims. Much like a keyhole reveal, Frank’s monologue begins mid-sentence. As the film proceeds, language itself is used as a weapon of mass destruction. Very simply, characters speak and everyone except Frank and Peter, die.
Oddly, in spite of this, the film is comical in its pathos and it is very difficult to keep from laughing even at the most tragic intervals. What does that say about the filmmaker, or for that matter, us? According to Joachim Back, ‘I think it’s important for everyone to reflect on their own lives. In order for people to change, they must experience violent tragedy. In my story, I give this couple the worst day ever.’ Here by design, yet entirely plausible, love is reborn as Peter and Frank walk over the bodies, share a cigarette and dance into the night sky.
Cliché ending? Certainly some may view it that way, though thankfully not
Joachim Back and his friends-turned-collaborators – the last of the true idealists.
Amy R. Handler is a Boston-based film-maker, film scholar, writer and critic.