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The Chumscrubber—Nathan Baran interviews director Arie Posin


On behalf of hybridmagazine I was fortunate enough to meet with director Arie Posin concerning his first feature-length effort, The Chumscrubber. Affable and visibly enthusiastic about his film, Posin regaled me with enough information about his filmmaking history and his metaphor-laden debut picture to stagger a headless teenager forced to battle zombies in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Because his metaphor-laden debut picture begs so many questions I was regrettably unable to ask all I had prepared, but what I did manage to rattle off before Posin’s publicist grew too annoyed to humor my interrogation follows below. I would lastly like to note that Posin wished to sit outside in the invigorating springtime sunlight, but, sadly, that was impossible.

For the sake of clarification, I, Nathan Baran, shall be abbreviated as “NB” throughout the course of this transcription, while Arie Posin will be denoted by “AP”.

NB: This is my first real interview so be gentle with me if you would.

AP: (Revolted) Okay.

NB: Could you tell me a bit about your background, what sparked your interest in film, and your major directorial influences?

AP: (Startled) Um… Uh… Wow, those are big questions. Well, I was born in Israel, and my parents are Russian. My dad was a film director in Russia, but he was sort of a staunch anti-Communist in the years that it was unhealthy to be that. So, he was actually sent to Siberia for some of his work and when he came out he kind of became one of the leaders of the underground there. He became sort of the dissonant filmmaker who wanted to leave. And then when they finally let him out I was born about a month after my folks got out—my mom was eight months pregnant with me when they escaped—so I’d say that would definitely spark anyone’s interest in film. I grew up with a lot of—it’s kind of strange, I grew up here basically, I lived in Israel for a few years and then in Canada for eight years and then moved to the States—so I grew up on all those movies that at a certain age we all grew up with, like Raiders Of The Lost Ark and obviously the Star Wars and Back To The Future movies, Jurassic Park, all these great movies, but at the same time I had sort of a steady diet of Russian art cinema. Tarkovsky was one of my dad’s closest friends, and he went to school with Konchalovsky and that generation of Russian directors worshipped the Italian Neo-Realists, so De Sica and Rossellini and Fellini—Fellini was God in our house—and every weekend we’d come up to LA if we could and see either a Russian movie or a foreign film and spend the rest of the day talking about it. Other huge influences were Bunuel, and the Surrealists like Dali, and the French New Wave directors, like Truffaut and Godard, who sort of blew my mind in film school. So, I’d say that’s sort of the mix, those great popcorn American movies, and also serious movies, like Unforgiven—which is a movie that I love—or Schindler’s List, these amazing movies, and then also that European kind of thing. That’s sort of the short answer.

NB: That’s a very diverse background; I’m impressed. Where did you go to film school?

AP: I went to USC. But, in my house, my whole childhood was film school. That’s all we talked about, we would dissect films. Also, you know, Russians take very, very seriously the cinema. If we were shooting this scene (Posin and I were sitting at a small, round table across from one another; he gestured to his left to indicate the placement of an imaginary camera) and you put the camera here and it was going to be just a regular, standard over-the-shoulder, I hear my dad’s voice saying, “Why did you put the camera there? Why didn’t you put it down a little lower? Or up a little higher? Or a little to the left?” because they’re all different, they all say something a little bit different—how much of the back of my head was in the frame. So that was really film school, and USC was the epilogue to that.

NB: How did you end up in the film industry? Did you somehow end up there straight from film school?

AP: (Breezily) Yeah, I just breezed in, it was easy. No, it was like, I graduated from film school 10 years ago. I knew Billy Wilder when I was in film school and he gave me some advice through film school. And when I graduated I went to see him and I said, “Hey, I just graduated from USC and I want to be a director, so what do you think I should do?” And he said (Posin launches into a gruff Wilder impersonation), “Get the hell out of this town!” He said, “You want to be a director, go see the world! Go screw a French girl!”

NB: That’s the best advice anyone can give anyone, I imagine.

AP: Yeah, you know what I mean. And so I went traveling—I lived in Ireland for six months, I went to Israel for almost a year, I spent a summer in Paris and a couple of months in the south of Spain—and it was the best advice. When you’re in film school there’s so much talk about film, but not a lot of people want to see movies about cinema. Maybe every once in a while. The Player, you know, is a great one, or Cinema Paradiso, but you want to make movies about everything else in the world but movies, so it’s great to go out into the world and see that there is a world out there. And that there’s different perspectives and different ways of looking at things. I was over there when the whole O.J. thing happened, and seeing that from the vantage point of being outside the country was wacky. And to this day I have a different sense of it than the people I see here. Because over there we didn’t hear anything about it and we were in the bookstore and we come to the section of American magazines and we see a picture of the chase—the car and everything, and we were like, “What the hell is going on in America?” And that’s the kind of thing I think is helpful when you do creative stuff, because it’s all about having your own perspective. So I did that for a couple years and I came back to LA and I got a telemarketing job and I waited tables for a while and I did all that crazy stuff, and I thought “God, how am I going to get into the business,” and I thought “I want to meet people.” So I got a job working at a talent agency. And I met a bunch of really great writers, some of whom are friends to this day, and a lot of agents, producers, and all of that stuff. And then it’s like you take this long route back to the obvious, and what you arrive at is, if I want to be in the business and I can know everybody, but if I don’t have a script, if I don’t have something to give them, then they’re just my friends, or they’re not my friends, they’re just acquaintances. So then I started writing, and that eventually led to directing shorts, or writing features and directing shorts, and then, eventually, The Chumscrubber.

NB: Did you find that your film school education helped you much with getting your foot in the door or had any effect on your being able to make a movie, ultimately?

AP: You know what, to one large degree it did, I’d say one thing: Which is, if you’ve never directed before, you know, it’s probably like if someone were to right now tell me that tomorrow I had to play the violin at the Hollywood Bowl, and I’d be terrified—I’ve never played the violin. And the thing you get to do in film school is make a movie, even if it’s a short. But it gives you a lot of confidence to have a camera in your hand and to cut one shot to another, and once you’ve done that—and I think a lot of people are doing that today without film school—which is why it’s kind of any interesting question because I’d never done it before film school because I couldn’t afford it and I couldn’t, I couldn’t afford it—you needed film and all those resources, or you have video and there’s no way to really cut it, whereas now I cut the shorts I was doing on Final Cut at home. I didn’t need film school to do the shorts that I did the few years back. But I think that’s the biggest thing that it gives you, it gives you confidence: You’ve done it. And you show up on the set—and this is the thing that was amazing—on The Chumscrubber, my first day as a feature director, I showed up and saw twelve trailers parked on the side of the road, and trucks, and suddenly there’s eighty people and I haven’t met any of them, ever, it’s all the drivers and caterers and there’s all this stuff. And I walk on the set and my first day was Ralph Fiennes and Rita Wilson and Lauren Holly, right, and we had six pages to shoot which is maybe three or three-and-a-half times what a normal studio would shoot. So it was an intense day on a low-budget indie movie. And about halfway through the day I realized that this was just like film school, and it was frightening. There’s a big (non-literal) machine that helps you if you’re doing a shot from this direction and you want to change it to that direction, there’s a whole crew that’s amazing, that works really hard to make that happen. But then when they’re ready to shoot and you’re there with the actors it’s the same thing. “Can you do this, how about that?” It’s the same conversations.

NB: That must be pretty absurd. I actually had a question later on, I was going to ask you how weird it was transitioning—I saw on IMDB that you’re listed as having done one short previously to this movie—and here you’re working with an incredible cast. How intimidated were you, or were you intimidated?

AP: Well, yeah. I was nervous right up to the moment I walked onto the set. You know, really nervous. I mean, what the hell are you going to say to Ralph Fiennes, you know? But then you get on the set and that’s the big thing that strikes you—it’s just like making a short with your friends. And this is the thing that was amazing with these actors; as great as they are, they’re also very open, and some of them even seek out direction. And it becomes the same thing you’ve been doing in a short, except you’re talking to Ralph Fiennes now. But all of that kind of gets stripped away, and at the end of the day there’s a camera and you’ve gotta decide where to put it, and there are lines that the actors have to decide how to play, and maybe once in a while you have a suggestion of how to do it a little differently, or maybe you want a variation for the cutting room, and it’s the same thing. And then you show up in the cutting room and have these pieces of film, and you look at them and there are all these famous people on them, but at the end of the day they’re playing these characters and you’re trying to tell the story. It’s shockingly similar.

NB: Were there any moments when there was a crucial decision, or when the crew was just bombarding you for information, when you just blanked? Or did you simply get into the (and I apologize for having uttered this term) “zone”?

AP: Well, I did, because I think I directed out of a deep, deep fear of messing up. I was ultra-prepared. I had done numerous passes through the script, I’d made notes on every scene and had gone through the script as each character and knew what I saw in my head and had already put into words what I was looking for. Which, a lot of the times you don’t need to say anything—if you cast the right people you’re already on the same page, and a lot of the times they were already doing what I imagined in my head that the character would do at that moment. But then if they had a question for me I was prepared. So, I didn’t really blank, mainly because I’d already had anxiety to be as prepared as I could be. But, there’s always a surprise. There’s one moment—and I’ll give you an example of that “zone” —that was hilarious. On that first day Ralph was reading a book that was written by one of the characters in the movie, Dean’s father, and he’s always got this book in his hand because he’s kind of obsessed with it. So we’re shooting the very first scene of the movie, which was a scene between Ralph and the cop, the ex-husband. So, the first challenge is that we haven’t cast the role of the ex-husband yet, even though it’s day one of shooting, so we have a double playing the ex-husband. But, you can’t show the double because you haven’t cast the role yet, so you don’t know who you’re doubling for. You don’t know if he’s tall, short, skinny, fat, or black or white, so you can’t really show the double. So you’re shooting this dialogue scene and Ralph comes up to me—and I’ve literally been there for, like, twenty minutes—and he comes up to me and says (here Arie settles into a wispy and gentle Fiennes impression), “Uh, Arie, what do you want me to do with this?” And he shows me the book. And one of the jokes in the movie is that the guy who wrote it, Dean’s father, is very narcissistic, and he’s got a big picture of himself on the cover of his book. But we hadn’t cast the role yet. So they’d made the cover of the book, and there’s a big square in the middle of the book, and it’s blank. It’s just white. There’s supposed to be a picture there but we didn’t have an actor for the role yet. And so that’s literally twenty minutes after walking on-set, that’s the first question. And Ralph saunters up and says, “Um, Arie, what do we do about this?” So one of the jokes of the movie is that the ex-husband keeps giving Ralph’s character parking tickets and Ralph’s character has a parking ticket in his hand, and I said, “Well, can you just hold the parking ticket and cover the picture like this?” And he says, “Oh, right, that’s good,” and he just walks away. And this moment just stuck in my head, and it was like you’d prepared all you can prepare, and then there’s something. Something like that happened every day. That sort of introduced me into this new world where the stakes are higher, and it’s Ralph Fiennes asking you the question.

NB: (Swooning) Well done. And that’s a striking Fiennes impersonation.

AP: (Coolly, like Fiennes) Well, thank you.

NB: How would you classify your directing style? How much direction did you give to your actors?

AP: The critical thing for me is casting. I spent a lot of time meeting a lot of actors for each of the roles, and I think that I found, in my opinion, all the right people for that parts. That, to me, is most of it. Elia Kazan had this great quote about the mistake that most first-time directors make, which is that they direct too much, and there’s a time to be quiet. So I always had that in my head. Most of the time I’d just say “Action” and they do what they’re gonna do, and if I’ve cast it right they’re going to do what’s in my head. Once in while they want some direction, and I’d be prepared for that, and then once in a while if they weren’t doing what I want I’d suggest that they do this. But most of the time I prefer for them to do their own thing unless I’m not getting what I need.

NB: In terms of the cast I’d have to agree, I thought they were great. Jamie Bell seems like an interesting up-and-coming actor, after Undertow and your movie he seems to be making unique choices.

AP: And Billy Elliot.

NB: Where did you find Camilla Belle? Has she been in anything else?

AP: Yeah, she’s done a few things. I think her first role was the opening scene of The Lost World, the Jurassic Park sequel. She’s the one that gets eaten by dinosaurs on the beach at the very beginning.

NB: (Recalling something) I recall that.

AP: She was ten or something when she did that. And she’s done a few movies sort of as a young girl, like twelve or thirteen, and I didn’t really know her from anything. This year as well she did a movie called The Ballad Of Jack And Rose that’s also here at SXSW that Rebecca Miller directed, and she plays Daniel Day-Lewis’s daughter. And I haven’t seen that movie, either. But the role of Crystal that you’re talking about, the role that she plays, is a really, really tough role because that character is gorgeous—she’s supposed to be the prettiest girl at school—but she’s also fragile. She’s on that tipping point of either going this way or that way, and she’s trying to figure that out. And it was hard to find someone who was stunningly beautiful but also had a gentle fragility. A lot of the actresses I met, particularly in Los Angeles, were very confident, and very strong. They were very strong-willed and a lot of them had been in the business for a while. And I was looking for someone who kind of felt like you wanted to wrap your arms around them and take care of them. It’s a critical role in the movie. She walked into the audition, and generally they’d come in and do something and I’d give them some direction just to see if they were directable, and Camilla came in and read the role, and she came in just as the character. She just was the character. And she read it and I said, “Ok, that’s great.” And she left and Bonnie, the producer, turns to me and said, “Don’t you want to give her something to do?” And I said, “I can’t improve on that. That was Crystal.” And that was how it happened. I hadn’t heard of her, hadn’t seen her in anything, and she was it.

NB: She certainly was gorgeous and vulnerable.

AP: And that’s a tough combination.

NB: What was the genesis of The Chumscrubber? Was there anything specific pulled out of your life or the screenwriter’s life that’s put into it, or is it more just looking at the American culture through the lens of absurdity?

AP: (Confusedly) Do you mean the movie as a whole?

NB: (Ashamed) Yeah, the movie as a whole, not the character. I’m sorry.

AP: Maybe it’s where my dad came from or the movies that he made, or the fact that he felt very strongly about the government in Russia and he was making his statement in his movies. But I always grew up with that idea that if you’re going to make a movie, make it about something that you have a point of view on. And that doesn’t mean that you have a solution or that you’re preachy or that you think you know better, because you most likely don’t. And I certainly don’t. But there’s something that you want to point a spotlight on—it’s the protest movie—and say here’s maybe something we’re ignoring, or maybe there’s a hypocrisy here that we’re not aware of. I remember as a seventeen-year-old being very aware of things that I thought all the adults in suburbia were just blind to, and that was very amusing. And to be able to tell that with a sense of humor, that was our goal for this movie. Billy Wilder had this great quote where he said that the best movies have a tiny, bitter pill that you want the audience to swallow, but to get them to swallow it you have to coat it in lots and lots of sugar. And sugar is humor and character development and plot twists and clever dialogue, and I hope that this movie falls into that category.

NB: There were many themes running rampant throughout the movie, such as the seemingly, idyllic suburban life, and running beneath that there is a current of darkness, and the failure of parents to communicate with their children. Which themes do you feel are most important or what message do you hope resonates with audiences the most?

AP: I don’t think there’s a message that I can be eloquent in delivering, just one thing. If there was I probably wouldn’t have made the movie. It seemed like it was so much bigger, the feeling of it. You know what it is? Hopefully what the big theme or the big message is what the world looks like when you’re seventeen and you’re in suburbia. That’s what we were going after. I don’t know how to be eloquent about that. It’s not, even though it may look perfect on the outside, there’s a lot going on underneath that nobody ever talks about. And maybe the movie talks about it a little bit.

Punctual Publicist: When the publicist starts talking that’s when we know we’re really close to the end. You have one more question and then you’re going to have to wrap it up.

AP: (Amused) That was a very good transition, there. Wow.

SPOILER WARNING

NB: Okay, so I’ll ask you about some of the big questions raised at the end of the film. About the Chumscrubber character, I think it can be read in many different ways, and maybe there’s not like a definitive take but while I’m here with the director I though I’d ask, regardless. Is the Chumscrubber merely a ubiquitous pop-culture icon that the teen demographic in the film associates with, or is it a subconscious delusion of Dean’s upon which he projects how much he misses his friend Troy, or is it actually some kind of physical entity that is sparked by Troy’s death at the beginning of the film and representative of all the evil or insidiousness of the suburbia?

AP: I think all of those things are true, and there’s a couple more. We tried to layer everything as much as we could because that has more resonance. It’s a great question, but it’s a question that people should read after they see the movie, because I think you’re right, it is all of those things. Just to confuse it a little bit I’ll give you the intellectual answer since that was a really intellectual question.

NB: Sounds good.

AP: There’s a debate in psychology circles concerning Freud and Jung; Freud had this theory which is anything that causes us discomfort or pain our psyche tends to bear it and deny or ignore, but it doesn’t go away. And it comes out in other ways. We find ourselves washing our hands fifty times a day and taking part in behavior that even we can’t explain, that’s really these buried emotions that we try to suppress. So, in a way, the Chumscrubber is everything that that community has suppressed or denied or tried to ignore, and it’s finally—and this is where Jung comes in because Jung talks about the collective unconscious—and so the Chumscrubber is meant to be a melting of those two philosophies and the idea that the collective denial of the community as a whole finally gives birth to a character that will not be ignored.

NB: Is there a specific link between the Chumscrubber and Troy? In the beginning there is a framing narration by the Chumscrubber delivered in a way that implies that Troy is the foundation that holds the community together, and at the end the narration returns and gives a run-down of the characters and how the events in the film affected them. Are Troy and the Chumscrubber one and the same?

AP: I think maybe—maybe—at the end of the movie they become one and the same because the Chumscrubber exists when Troy exists, it’s already a character in the pop-culture of the movie, but in Dean’s mind his friend who’s no longer around begins to meld with this icon that all the teens worship. So they start to become one and the same, and at the end of the movie that icon is wearing Troy’s shoes and his outfit and that they’ve blended. So I think that at the end of the movie they do become one and the same. But, the narration that is the Chumscrubber’s voice is actually Dean’s voice, tweaked a little bit, so maybe the whole thing is in Dean’s unconscious.

NB: And concerning that recurs through the film and is shown with prominence in the final shot, does it represent anything other than an abstract symbol of hope? Or is it concretely tied into the story in another way? I couldn’t determine how it was woven into any of the characters’ motivations or backgrounds, other than the mayor’s.

AP: Well, it’s abstract but it’s also concrete because the movie seems like all of these moving parts and there’s all of this chaos going on, but the mayor says that he feels like they’re all connected, and when explaining it to his fiancée he says that nothing is random, and that there’s a power at work here that’s greater than all of us. He senses this deep beauty where everyone else sees monotony or chaos, and at the end of the movie maybe we’re trying to say that they’re both right. That, if you can see it, there is beauty and order to the chaos.

NB: One final, small tidbit: What did Charlie Stiffle’s mask represent? Was it meant to be reminiscent of a harlequin clown, as that character seemed to be a constant element of chaos throughout the movie?

AP: It partly is, but it’s also a black mask used in horror movies—the killer wears that mask—but in our movie it’s a Chumscrubber mask, it’s got the Chumscrubber on it. All the iconography in the movie is connected to that cartoon. We have this video game woven through the whole movie that all the kids are playing all the time, and you hear voices in the video game. All the voices from the video game are lines from the movie said by characters from the movie, and they’re in the game before you hear them in the movie. So you hear “Kill ’em. Stab ’em. Cut his head off.” All those lines that later come back you hear before. So when you hear them they’re already maybe a little bit in your subconscious, maybe a little bit familiar. So all of that is tied together. The game and the cartoon are really a reflection of what’s going on in the real world.

And with that my interview with Arie Posen came to a close, and I returned immediately home to transcribe the hell out of this. Arie, however, strolled away to engage in the aristocratic lifestyle of a now-established feature-film director and will, tonight, undoubtedly sleep with a harem of beautiful women who respect him not only as a filmmaker, but also as a man.

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