By Tom Ue.
Jordan Galland has directed commercials, music videos and three feature films: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead (2010), Alter Egos (2012), and Ava’s Possessions (2016). As a recording artist, he has released over a dozen albums of his own songs since 1998 and contributed music to films and TV shows as well an original score for the award-winning Supporting Characters (2013). In what follows, he discusses the inspiration behind and the development of his first two films. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern follows the adventures of Julian Marsh (Jake Hoffman) as he takes on a job directing an on-off Broadway play, a kind of adaptation of Hamlet. As the film unfolds, we learn that the play is really written by a vampire. Alter Egos takes a different direction: in a universe wherein superheroes are underappreciated and face cuts in governmental funding, Fridge (Kris Lemche) and C-Thru (Joey Kern) are in a joint mission, where their loyalties and friendship are put to the test.
I am sure that you have heard this many times, but both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead and Alter Egos feature some excellent music. You are both a filmmaker and musician – with which do you identify more?
Filmmaking employs a visual form as well as audio and musical, so I don’t think of making movies or making music as being competitive. One envelopes the other. A lot of filmmakers have other creative outlets that influence their films. Music is one area of filmmaking where I feel especially knowledgeable and close to; more so than, say, costume design, where I need to educate myself on each film in regards to each character and lean heavily on the costume designer’s expertise. I certainly approach both songwriting and scriptwriting equally – the goal being to create a world or a mood in a contained gesture, or series of scenes and movements, and tell a story that can entertain and resonate with people.
How do you juggle these two aspects of your career?
Filmmaking has many parts and phases, and between each one there is often a small window of time when I am able to focus on songwriting. Especially when a film is finally all mixed and colored, and the VFX shots are done, there is a long window until it is distributed to an audience, when I am dealing with the trailer, poster and promotion. I tend to do a lot of songwriting in this time, for myself or for other singers, because it recharges my emotions and connects me in a fundamental way to older feelings of inspiration. It can be restorative, since making a movie is often a very draining, soul-crushing process.
I often work with other filmmakers to score their movies or commercials and in a similar way the musicians I’ve become friends with often hire me to direct videos, so in that way, these two aspects of my work feed each other.
How did your career begin?
For music, I would say when Sean Lennon asked my band Dopo Yume to open up for him on a U.S. tour in 1998. I had just graduated high school and began creating t-shirts and cassette tapes of our music to sell on tour. From then on, I was constantly working on music, creatively and on the business side.
For film, it started when Variety ran an article in 2005 on a script I was writing with some friends, based on a Japanese book we had optioned titled “Coin Locker Babies.” I had also just completed a 20-minute short film that was playing in festivals, so after that point, I was able to approach other people in the film industry with my own projects, and finally gather enough momentum to make my first feature.
How would you describe your sound?
At a certain point years ago, I said it was Serge Gainsbourg meets David Bowie. I’m not sure how consistent my sound has been over the years – but the lyrics to me have always been the most important aspect of a song. I’m a devout fan of Leonard Cohen.
Both Rosencrantz and Alter Egos riff on familiar genres: in the former, the horror film, and the latter, the action hero film. What do you think attracts us to genres?
I think in a genre film, we can use metaphor to explore themes of identity that, without the filter of fantasy, would be too on the nose and melodramatic. Supernatural details can enrich a grounded human narrative, or cheapen it certainly – but in the best cases, magical forms can trigger the imagination and subconscious. There is also a business aspect to this, because horror movies specifically are considered safer investments, but also offer ample opportunity to experiment with visuals and sound design, and never be branded “experimental.” When I saw The House of the Devil (2009), for instance, I felt I was being shown an art film in a horror movie’s clothing.
How do you try to offer your own take?
I just don’t feel satisfied with any creative effort as long as it reminds me too much of something else. I will keep working on a song or a script until I have found something that feels true, but unique from any of the songs or movies that inspired me to begin with. And in filmmaking there are so many choices to make – from conceiving of an initial idea for story, to narrative structure, to character details and dialogue. With each choice comes the challenge to do something you haven’t seen before. It’s not always possible, but I try to keep searching the universe until I find a new solution to an old problem. It’s a fun process, but it is also inevitably painful at times and requires patience and the courage to start from almost scratch after months of hard work, to admit that you need to revise from page 1. A new solution can often come from cross-pollination, but you have to be careful because if you’re lazy that can lead to a simple “mash-up” – the most obvious being combining B-movie monsters mixed with Victorian romance. But I do like to consider how another film or a song handles a problem I am facing, when that other film or song is completely different from what I am working on. I was writing a serial killer film recently but watched The Hours (2002) and Adaptation (2002) for inspiration and reference, and in doing that, it felt like a new way into a well known genre.
Both films feature imperfect moral centres: Julian cheats on his ex-girlfriend all the time, and Fridge/Brendan has a conflicting relationship with his girlfriend Emily. What led you to create these interesting, un-prudish characters with whom we can readily relate?
At the time I was writing the scripts, I was using my own anxiety and obsessions from my life and relationships. Julian’s troubled relationship with his ex-girlfriend Anna was a direct reflection of a difficult friendship I was having with an ex-girlfriend, and I found a kind of cynical humor to it. I had a dream she was a vampire and turned me into a vampire. It was very real and terrifying but also enchanting and sexy. But in real life the relationship was sucking the life out of me, in many regards.
Fridge/Brendan was really a metaphor for me shedding off a very indie “rockstar” identity which I had cultivated when I had a rock band, and felt like something I could no longer relate to or live up to, but that people expected from me. In the context of superheroes, I found a lot of humor, but also a kind of unexpected sadness to it.
Watching Rosencrantz again, I can’t help but notice the many in-jokes in relation to Shakespeare and the horror film. How do you keep the momentum and rhythm of the humour going?
I was very influenced by early Woody Allen films and the punning acrobatic style of Tom Stoppard, and then the off-the-wall background mythology of Being John Malkovich (1999). The horror film aspect was not as important to me and I think that it shows – the film is foremost a comedy, and at times reaches a creepy tone, but never quite scary, in the classic vampire sense.
Some of the passing remarks in the two films – Julian’s observation that the embedded play is very confusing in Rosencrantz and the Shrink’s that superhero and a super villain is just a name in Alter Egos – are quite insightful. Did you purposefully script the films in this way? Does improv play a role or are all of your films fully scripted?
Those lines were scripted, but I always want actors to make sure the dialogue is natural for them. While we don’t improvise, we do rework the dialogue right up until we roll the camera, and I encourage actors to feel loose with it, because it always feels more natural. And often they come up with ideas that are as true to the themes of the film and heart of the characters as what I’ve written, but something I never would have thought of.
Back-stories figure heavily in both films, and you integrate them quite successfully. What led you turn to turn to flashback?
Flashback in Alter Egos was inspired by Reservoir Dogs (1991) and Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). I just like the hard, unannounced cut to a memory, sometimes with the ambient sound of the present scene where someone is describing – not narrating – the memory we are watching.
When do you know when you are ready to begin filming?
On all three films, I would have loved more pre-production time. More time to create storyboards and look for even better location options. But with small budgets you can’t have more than a month. I start preproduction before I’ve hired anyone – for instance with my new film Ava’s Possessions, I was creating artwork for the props six months before filming. But in general, we are ready to begin filming when the money is in the bank, and the script is in a place that feels we have tackled all the foreseeable problems. Undoubtedly in the editing room we will face new problems we wish we could have predicted in the script stage.
Your films very frequently gesture towards socio-economic conditions, such as Julian’s living in his father’s office in Rosencrantz and funding cuts for superheroes in Alter Egos. To what extent are you responding to some of the problems faced by those in their twenties and thirties?
Money is the cause of stress in everyone’s life. Needing to move out of your parents’ house or getting fired from your job or losing your funding/financing – these are very relatable circumstances. I found a kind of truth and irony to the idea that superheroes need government subsidies because their services don’t generate any revenue otherwise.
Kris Lemche, Geneva Carr, Joey Kern, and John Ventimiglia appear in your first two films, and Carr and Ventimiglia in your new film Ava’s Possessions. Tell us about your casting.
I first met Lemche and Kern on Rosencrantz, and fell in love with them as actors. They didn’t have any scenes together in Rosencrantz, and Lemche’s character died too soon, and Kern only came in at the end. So I wrote Alter Egos for them, inspired by them. They’re both good-looking, handsome fellows in the classic comic book superhero sense. And I felt that they were different as actors, though equally brilliant. Their differences as actors I think was expressed for me in the differences of the characters I wrote for them, the fundamental philosophy of the industry they work in and their abilities and craft, and how they come to accept each other at the end.
I always want to cast actors who can relate in a psychological way to the characters. Jake Hoffman is a director, for example, so playing a director was definitely natural to him. And in both cases, with Jake as Julian and Kern and Lemch as Fridge and C-thru, their psychological connection to the character I think helped them come up with great ideas in preproduction. All three of those actors helped with the development of the script, and came up with ideas for scenes and dialogue.
Ventimiglia brought such tremendous depth and fullness to his character in Rosencrantz that I wrote the character of Shrink with him in mind, because I felt he could explore the power and tragedy of being able to read minds and control other people through telekinetic powers. He could take it to a dark tragic place, even sympathetic.
I needed a believable newscaster, which is much harder than you would suspect, because if it’s not done properly, the whole premise of exposition falls apart. I knew Geneva could do it, and I wanted to work with her again, but in a way I considered it a great favor to me when she played the Newscaster, because I know it wasn’t a tremendously interesting part to play, and she just sat in front of a green screen in my bedroom for a day. But she nailed it and I am grateful. We actually did film another actor delivering similar newscasts, so that there would be some variety, and believability – so that it wasn’t just the same news station on every time they turn on the TV – but Geneva’s delivery was so perfect, I had to only use her performance.
Location plays a central role: in Rosencrantz, we have a gorgeous theatre, and in Alter Egos, an off-resort. Tell us about the location scouting.
The cinematographer on both films, Chris Lavasseur, always said, “we can’t make a bad location look good.” And I quickly picked up on the fact that you can’t fake a location for something else. You can’t pretend a bathroom in a home is a bathroom in a restaurant, for instance. It just feels wrong on film. With Rosencrantz we spent a lot of time searching for an affordable theater, which meant it had to be small, but that still had some quality about it that made it believable that 2000-year old vampires would work there, and that a showdown involving the Holy Grail itself would take place there. We needed a theater with a sense of history, which is easy to find in New York City, but not for cheap. We ended up finding a place on 4th Street, connected to a church and a school. And when we were scouting the place, after two weeks of looking at other, much less interesting small theaters, Chris Lavasseur said, half-jokingly, “If we don’t get this theater, I’m quitting.”
With Alter Egos, I found the location first, and wrote the script around it. When I brought the team out to do a tech scout, they were amazed at how well it fit the script, because usually you look for a location based on the description in the screenplay. But the pathways, and stairs and cabins, front gift shop check-in area were all exactly as I had described them in the script. And when Lavasseur nodded and said, “this is a good location, Jordan,” I felt like we were on a good path.
Tell us about what’s next for you.
I’m currently developing a script called Devil’s Fork that is a psychological horror with a puzzle-like structure. Ava’s Possessions, my upcoming film, is about a girl recovering from demonic possession, starring Louisa Krause as Ava. She goes to a support group that’s like AA for victims of demonic possession. I realized, in I’m developing a script called Devil’s Fork that is a psychological horror with a puzzle-like structure.the editing room, as I was working alone for months, that I was exploring similar themes to Rosencrantz and Alter Egos, as far as identity is concerned. Because the demon that possesses Ava takes on a similar role to the superhero in Alter Egos, or the vampire playing a human, playing a vampire, and that kind of thing. I’m very proud of Ava’s Possessions and excited for it to reach audiences worldwide in 2016.
Tom Ue writes for Film International. His bestselling edited collection World Film Locations: Toronto was published by Intellect in April 2014, and he is presently writing a book about the White Messiah in contemporary films. He has recently completed the Dictionary of Literary Biography 377: Twenty-First Century British Novelists (Gale, 2015). Ue gained his Ph.D. from the Department of English Language and Literature at University College London and he is presently a Visiting Scholar in the Department of English at the University of Toronto at Scarborough.