A decade on from director Ari Gold’s feature debut comedy about an air drummer, Adventures of Power (2008), his sophomore feature, Song of Sway Lake (2018) tells the story of Ollie (Rory Culkin), a young man who plots to steal a valuable jazz record from his grandmother’s lake house. The plan is derailed when his friend and accomplice Nikolai (Robert Sheehan) falls in love with the matriarch, while Ollie himself complicates matters by falling in love with the woman from across the lake.
While the past is a prevalent theme in Song of Sway Lake, Gold himself is still looking back to his 2001 short, Helicopter, a film about his mother’s death that he is developing into a feature with advice from Alejandro Jodorowsky. Song of Sway Lake is indicative of how life, both everyday and the creative, is not lived chronologically, as the past bleeds into the future, that’s an inevitable part of the journey of a life lived.
In conversation with PopMatters, Gold speaks of the motivation that drives him to tell stories and the interpersonal relationship of a film to its author. He also reflects on transformation through a pursuit of meaning and the dangers posed by the political climate we have created.
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I always wanted to tell stories. My dad is a novelist and I grew up with storytelling as an idea, so I have to credit him on that level. But I didn’t know that I wanted to make movies… I’m trying to think if there was a defining moment. I think I didn’t like the idea of being alone behind a computer or a typewriter, and I also loved movies.
The ones that influenced me were: Spinal Tap (1984), Terminator (1984) and The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), a very disparate and pretty wide range of styles that I would watch over and over again, and think: Why am I watching this movie twenty times? [Laughs]. It must be that there’s something in it that’s moving me. So it was definitely a process, and it wasn’t like it was something I always knew I wanted to do. I didn’t know it was even possible to be a filmmaker, or how in the world someone would get into that position, so that took some figuring out for sure.
For some individuals, even if they are perceived by others to be a filmmaker or a writer for example, the realisation is something they may struggle with themselves. How did you come to realise you could be a filmmaker and does it still some days feel like a dream to you?
I would say a lot of days it feels like a dream. I feel like a person who’s trying to connect with my soul in a proper way, like connecting with the world, which is my daily practice. Film happens to be something that keeps me up at night and it’s an amazing tool to communicate with people’s hearts.
My short film Helicopter (2001), about my mothers death, played around the world, and showed me there is a way to communicate that can really transform people. When I was touring with the film I’d get people coming up to me and one person said, “I hadn’t spoken with my brother in fifteen years, and after seeing your twenty minute film I called him up, and we are going to go and have a beer and makeup.”
That’s an amazing experience, to think: Okay, I worked for years on this ethereal thing, images and sound, and somebody’s life has transformed because of it. Sometimes it’s a little bit, and sometimes it’s a lot, but that transformation is the whole point for me, and so that’s why I do it. I do it for those e-mails that come in; I do it for the people who are moved.
My first feature, Adventures of Power (2008) was a totally different ball of wax, a wacky comedy about an air drummer, but also with a deep spiritual and political story, if you’re willing to see that. Those messages come through as well, people saying: “This is our Christmas movie. We watch this every year and it brings our family together.” What an amazing thing that is for me when I’m not getting rich off this, a lot of the time working late into the night, seven days a week. But if I’m elevating people’s spirits, then it’s worth it.
Interviewing Australian filmmaker Ariel Kleiman for his feature debut Partisan (2015), on the subject of the contrast between a short and feature film, he remarked: “…the best way I could describe it for me is that making a short film, I felt you could hold it in your hand, whereas a feature film is like a runaway train.”
I don’t necessarily agree. From the point of view of the director having to make the thing, a feature is a runaway train, for sure. But in terms of what it’s doing artistically, I think if something is done well, then the purpose is very similar.
You have a deep core feeling that drives a film, what one teacher I worked with called a “nugget”. If it’s a one-minute or a 100-minute film, that idea is its reason for being, and that idea needs to be in every frame, in every line, and in every character that’s shot. If it is, then the person watching it is going to experience something. They may not be able to define that idea that you have in your head or in your heart, but if they feel something, its because you did that work
A feature isn’t that different. Of course it is longer and there are a lot more balls to juggle, but the idea is the same. War and Peace (1867), I would say, also has a single nugget that runs through the whole thing, even though that’s certainly a runaway train in terms of storytelling.
Interviewing filmmaker Sean Brosnan for My Father Die (2016), he explained: “I know a lot of friends who pick their themes first or they’ll pick a story and then say: ‘What do I want to explore?’ I find for me that is very limiting because I just like to explore a world and its characters; to see what theme comes out of that and to let the story dictate it.” Each storyteller takes a different approach, but to speak about theme, are you attentive to specific themes or is it a journey of discovery for the nugget that will give the film a spirit?
Well, in the case of the Song of Sway Lake, I have to confess that I didn’t know the nugget when I started. My co-writer (Elizabeth Bull) and I created it based on loving Eric Rohmer movies that take place in the summer on a lake. We loved the idea of this mass of characters — the wild Russian young man who loves America and becomes obsessed with an American matriarch in her 70s, and his best friend bearing the weight of the past through his search for this old music that has been lost since 1940.
We knew all these facts, we knew that one young man falls in love with whom he thinks is the “perfect girl” across the lake, and the other one falls in love with a woman in her 70s across the room. But that wasn’t the theme. These were the facts on the surface and all of that is rich, and all of that you can smell and drink onscreen in a movie. But for the theme, I had to dig deep into myself, all the way through the writing, the shooting and the editing, until shortly before the first screening when I finally understood why I was making the movie.
[The film] is really about my relationship with the present and it’s about how each of the characters are stuck in the past in some way. You have the Rory Culkin character who wants to erase the past because he can’t live up to his family name, while the Russian wants to steal the past of this family, and the grandmother wants to return to her own past.
Even the other characters — the maid who hasn’t seen her family since she was 20 in Cuba, and the girl across the lake has changed her name and is pretending to be someone else. So nobody is being present, and this idea of moving from ice, from a lake in winter to the water of the lake in summer, where you are in flow with life, is the great challenge in my personal life, and that’s what the movie is about.
Realising it was an amazing lightning strike moment: Why are all these characters grappling with this? Oh, it is because I am. I get stuck in the past, in regret and longing for something that has gone, and for something I didn’t have. Every time you do that throughout the day you are not where you are, you are not living, or you are not aware that you are living it because you are missing out. So once I understood that in the last phase of the editing, I was able to make sure that imprint is there. Again, people might not know that consciously, but if they are moved, then I think they are feeling that move from ice to water.
It could be ascertained that films exist on a dream logic and that they are psychological constructs, owing to those levels of conscious awareness that form the spectatorial experience. Ray Bradbury said, “Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing.”
I share this thought that there is an unconscious dimension to writing, in which ideas and characters are given to you. With that in mind, could we say film is both a dream logic and a psychological construct?
Well, the words ‘dream’ and ‘logic’ are wonderfully fickle, aren’t they? A dream is an experience where the cut from one scene to another does have this logic that the daytime mind couldn’t usually have thought of. Most dreams are not long show off tracking shots, they are built out of cuts. As a creator, the big challenge is how do I access that dream logic because those cuts are amazing, but you can’t pre-meditatively think of them, you have to experience your way through them.
So for me some of the big keys are writing the first draft quickly, not second guessing or checking myself because that triggers your critical mind, as opposed to your dream mind, and that’s important. Keeping paper by your bed so if you do actually have a dream you can write it down, and moving your body when you are writing, standing up and taking breaks.
Mine was going out into nature, and a lot of my revelatory ideas when I was stuck, whether it was for hours, for days or for weeks sat there bent over a laptop, was to go for a sprint through a forest and twelve-minutes later the idea just appeared.
The first image of The Song of Sway Lake is of a watch sinking in water and that encapsulates the whole theme, the idea of letting time go, and particularly letting frozen time go as a broken watch. That came to me in the middle of a three day silent meditation in the desert where I was losing my mind. Anyone who meditates knows that meditation is hard; it’s chaos in the mind. People who don’t meditate think you are sitting there peacefully, but not at all. You are grappling with thoughts that are getting fired at you and dragged in different directions.
So in the middle of this particularly gruelling meditation, this image suddenly came in, and you talk about Ray Bradbury pulling Tesla-like ideas from the ether, and that one just shot into my brain. I pictured black water and a watch sinking, and I thought: What is that? I realised: Oh, that’s my movie. Then I thought: Wait a minute, there’s actually a reason for a watch sinking in water.
I didn’t shoot at first, but in the plot that’s there, and so long after the film was done and mostly edited, I took my iPhone and dropped the watch in water, which is now the first shot. That image came out of this meditation, but I didn’t go into the meditation looking for an answer to my movie. I went in without intention and that allowed it to come to me. I could never guarantee that would happen again the same way, but it’s usually not when I’m bent over the computer.
Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
Yeah, it’s absolutely true that you change because for one thing, making a movie and seeing it all the way through to completion is technically a very hard thing to do. But if you are doing the digging, which I try my best to do and it sounds like whoever said that is doing as well, you discover things about yourself, and you discover the reason why you are making it.
A lot of people don’t finish their films because they didn’t want to keep pushing to figure out why they’re making it, and what it is the film is telling them that needs to change in their soul, or what would be nice to consider changing. Or there are people who make a film based on purely an idea, like: I am going to make a movie like Boogie Nights (1997), but it’s about… They were never going to discover meaning because they were never chasing it. But if you’re looking for meaning, you’re going to change because like I said about the sinking watch, I didn’t know any of that, and I can now catch myself and think: Oh right, I’m ruminating on something I can’t change because it passed, something I’ve lost, somebody who died, some relationship that ended, some regret that I didn’t get something as a child, whatever. Oh, that’s just like one of these characters in the movie that I wrote thinking I was just writing a summer romance [laughs]. And so I learned from this movie.
In as much as cinema can entertain, it has the capacity to help us to better understand ourselves and our world. Would you agree?
Well, ideally yes. If you’re trying to change the world with a movie then you’re going to run into trouble because that’s your brain talking again. But if you’re doing the spiritual work, then it becomes a bigger world work, a political work even.
My film is not political on the surface, but on some level it’s this stuff about rape and pollution, lost graves and the idea of people being polite to each other in the past, and how we move forward and connect with each other in a world that is changing. That becomes a radical act because if you go to see a movie about a robot and monster punching each other, that’s going to play out politically. And the world we create politically is robots and monsters punching each other. So this is a film that has all these surface things that are interesting: the de-gentrification of the lake, the WWII era and what heroism meant then, and how people who don’t know what heroism is can find that now, and how a woman in her 70s can be beautiful to a younger man.
All those things are interesting politically and that’s great. They are talking points, but the change starts from inside and becomes: Okay, can we as humans feel and engage with ourselves and with other people? Otherwise the robot is going to punch the monster, or the monster is going to punch the robot, and we are going to get crushed when they fall.
The Song of Sway Lake was released by The Orchard in theaters on 21 September 2018, and will by On Digital and On Demand today, 25 September 2018.