Finding Love in Anti-Romance

Finding Love in Anti-Romance
Interview with Eric Byler, director of Tre

 

Image

Tre” opened in LA on Feb 1, 2008, Chicago on Feb 8, and San Francisco on Feb 15.

Eric Byler graduated from Wesleyan University where his senior thesis film, Kenji's Faith, went on to be selected for the Sundance Film Festival in 1995.  His first feature film, Charlotte Sometimes was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards in 2003.  The film was called "fascinating and illuminating" by film critic Roger Ebert and won numerous festival awards, including the Audience Award at the South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW).

Byler's second feature Tre won a Special Jury Award at the 2007 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.  His third feature AMERICANese won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at SXSW, in addition to a Special Jury Prize for Outstanding Ensemble Cast.

 

EntToday: Eric, a term that comes up a lot when reviewers write about your films; is "anti-romantic."  Is that a fair characterization?

Eric Byler: Well, yes, but only if I get a chance to clarify—does that sound like a politician?—I don't mean that I'm against romance and I hope that's not what people mean when they say that the films are anti-romantic; but, in the sense that a hero can be an anti-hero—not necessarily because he's the villain but because he has the same flaws, the same doubts, the same challenges that people have in real life and, in that way, is different than the way heroes are depicted typically in movies—then, yes, that's how I approach romance: with all the flaws and the doubts, the pitfalls and the disappointments and not typically the way romance is depicted in movies.

EntToday: Which filmmakers have influenced you in your own cinematic renderings of relationship?

Byler: The goal is to have the influence come from real life and not from movies.  Too many movies are inspired from other movies and that's how the genres become so repetitive and why so many of us are just in-and-out with the studio fare.  But the movies that really made me aware that it was okay to tell the stories that were inspired by life as opposed to other people's movies were films like Carnal Knowledge, Five Easy Pieces, Sex, Lies & Videotape, Midnight Cowboy and The Graduate; films where the relationships are so complex.

When I rediscovered that era of American cinema when American studios were making art films, and the best and most talented directors and actors were collaborating on art films, that was when I said, "I can do that."  The main difference is that I would say I'm influenced by films that were made longer ago than, say, most of the people making films modeled after last year's crop of festival darlings.

EntToday: The films you reference as influential were the films I was watching as a teenager.

Byler: I wouldn't recommend those films for a 15-16 year old and I don't recommend my films to anyone who hasn't had their heart broken.  You need to have been there once to understand Charlotte Sometimes and Tre.  You need to have committed crimes in the arena of love that you're ashamed of and wish you could take back.  Heartbreak is really the only thing that brings people there and—if you notice in both of those films—it's heartbreak that causes the most shameful betrayals.  You could say that in Tre the betrayals allow the characters to escape their cycle of loneliness and disenchantment.  Not that they find anyone, but that they finally break the circuit and are able to grow up.

EntToday: Your films rebel against commodified notions of love, even as your characters accept the daunting task of continuing to look for love.  Since the task is so daunting, who are your films for?  Who is your audience?

Byler: I honestly don't make the movies with that in mind.  The best answer—in terms of when I'm conceiving the film—is me.  I'm making films that I would like to see.

Continue to next page 



Finding Love in Anti-Romance
Interview with Eric Byler, director of Tre

Image

EntToday: Will your current activist work affect your future feature filmmaking?

Byler: It might.  I just know and feel that I'm a different person now and—because my films are so personal—my films will change; but, I'm still discovering who I'm becoming and so I can't predict how my films will change.  I know that I could continue to make anti-romances and make them well and I probably will make more of them; but, I've changed through this process and I'm glad I have.  I find it more rewarding to make a difference than to make a movie, frankly.  I don't know if that means the films will be better or worse in the eyes of others.

EntToday: One of my favorite scenes in Tre, and its appropriate tagline, is that a whole life can change on the basis of 10 seconds.  As a filmmaker you seem keen on capturing those moments when individuals change.

Byler: If you were to create a formula for Charlotte Sometimes and Tre, you would ask the question: could an ordinary life be depicted as a movie?  Can you find something universal and revealing in a life that doesn't include saving the Earth from a comet that's going to destroy us all or a life that doesn't include running from zombies?  That never happens to any of my characters.  It's not the events that make their stories extraordinary; it's the character of their hearts.  It's who they are as people.

My hypothesis is that in any person's life there was a period of time when they were most alive, when everything mattered, when they felt that everything in their life up to that point had led to this particular moment or this particular night and everything that followed was in some sense an aftermath.  We could all find that time in our lives if we look back.  If there was a movie about my life it would be about the two weeks that led up to that night, after which everything else was just an epilog.  In Charlotte Sometimes and in Tre you see four people in each movie who all go through that experience in a short span of time.  None of them are going to go down in history.  None of them are going to run for public office.  None of them will ever fire a weapon at an extraterrestrial.  But those extraordinary moments that they lived, any human being could live if they're really open to falling in love or if they have conflicts about being open to falling in love, which is the essence of the title characters in both films.

EntToday: Diarist Anaïs Nin—infamous for recording everyday moments—once described the large dimension of small gestures.  You don't have to be dodging comets or avoiding zombies to feel the drama of your own biography as it's unfolding, moment by moment.  These moments are frequently placed within silence in your films.  Can you speak to your use of silence to further narrative?

Byler: I only notice the silence in my movies when I spend a lot of time watching "normal" movies and then I come back to mine.  Silence is not so uncommon in life and my movies are, as I've said, always an attempt to try to come as close as possible to approximating real life.  The choices I make artistically are not necessarily defined by or governed by choices other filmmakers have made.  In the case of silence, if a film is about loneliness—as Charlotte Sometimes and AMERICANese both are—you can't depict loneliness without the aid of time.  A really quick scene about loneliness I can't imagine I can do sincerely.  So, yeah, there are these sprawling long takes that show a person alone in their apartment.  I don't know why I've always been interested in what people do when they're alone and how observing them can tell you something about their characters when they don't intend to be emoting or communicating with anyone; they're alone.  You really can't do that anywhere but in a movie because—in real life—just as soon as there are two people there, there's something of a performance and a little bit of artifice involved.  Here, not only in the scenes about loneliness but in scenes where people interact, in both of those films and in Tre you see people that are hiding more than they show.  It's sort of the opposite of the way that most people might approach a movie where a character is designed to emote as much as possible to provide as much information to the audience as possible in a limited amount of time because you know the commercial is coming soon.  I assume that if you sit down to watch an Eric Byler movie, you're okay with a slightly unorthodox approach to storytelling and you're not going to begrudge me a secret or a subtlety or a moment of pause or silence.

Continue to next page



Finding Love in Anti-Romance
Interview with Eric Byler, director of Tre

Image

EntToday: Can you speak a little bit about how you work with your actors to capture that feel you're going for?

Byler: The basic premise is that if you've simply memorized a series of desired results and then attempted to execute them, they're not going to have the nuance and complexity and chaos of real life.  I try to capture that nuance and complexity and chaos while we're shooting the scene.  When the story's already scripted, it's easy to fall into a series of memorized results.  You have to find ways to keep it alive.  One of the ways that I do that is I don't allow the actors to memorize their cadence or reaction to a line.  I make it very clear that how the scene develops and how they react and whether they dare to touch someone or dare to kiss someone depends on what they read from the other actor.  They'll actually see me whisper to his or her scene partner a specific direction that he [or she] knows will surprise him [or her].  During the actual take, it's alive because you have no idea what direction it's going to go.  You have an idea what [your scene partner] is going to say, but your scene partner might say something completely different than what you were expecting and you'll have to react to that.

In Tre we used that technique a few times.  The first two that came to mind were both after sex scenes.  Gabe (Erik McDowell) and Kakela have sex and I secretly instructed Erik McDowell to ask Kakela if she came.  After the sex part of the scene, there was some dialogue I wanted to capture.  Kimberly's reaction was beautiful and so much more beautiful than it would have been if it was written on the page and she was expecting it.  Another example is after Nina and Tre have sex, an unscripted line I asked Daniel to say was, "You're not the kind of woman who usually does this.  I can tell by the way you hold me."  Alix's reaction [as Nina] was so beautiful because she didn't expect that to happen.  She didn't expect him to say that.  Her reaction—"How do I hold you?"—was improvised.  That was what she wanted to know as Nina, but as Alix I suppose, about that moment and why he chose to say that.  Daniel's decision to leave was also something that just happened spontaneously and we had to go and shoot another shot to cover it; but, that's one of the great things you can do when you're shooting digitally: to have that complexity to roll with the way the improvisations go.  [It's important to have] actors know at every moment that something could change and that something I whispered to the scene partner could throw the scene in a different direction and answer some of the overarching questions that they know their characters are seeking to answer in the process of making the film and exploring the story, that they look at the whole movie as a discovery, not as an execution of pre-determined results.

EntToday: Sounds like it's a challenge as well as fun to work with you on the set.

Byler: I don't know if the actors would say it was "fun" because there's an emotional wringer they have to go through.  I do try to get to know them as people as much as possible and change the characters to match their own life stories.  I'm open with them and they're open with me about their weaknesses, insecurities and their worst fears, the things that they need most, and a lot of the time it's the same for all people but I'm able to sharpen the character by allowing the actor to be themselves and be in character at the same time.  The super objectives, these questions—sometimes they're not even objectives but questions—Tre, for instance, his overarching question is could a woman like Kakela, or any woman for that matter, truly love him as he is?  Or do they see him as a sexual object in the same way that he tries to see women?  In particular, did Kakela really love him or was she just—as he says at the end of the film—using him so that she wouldn't marry Gabe?  Daniel knew that Kim and I had written the script together and he felt that we were keeping secrets from him.  [Laughter.]  But that's how I like the actors to feel and that the answer was something that we were going to reveal.  I tried to make Daniel believe that it would be discovered and that I wasn't even steering it in any direction, it could go either way, and every scene was written to move things in any way; but, the truth is that I am manipulating the nuances as I go along.  In certain scenes I'm getting both, or two or three different variations that will help me craft the overall arc and giving me options later because the way that the final scene went would ultimately color how it would edit scenes that come before that in the movie.  The most important thing is that the actors believe that these questions are not already answered so that—as they live each moment—they don't know the future.  They don't know their destiny.  Everything is shot out of order in a film shoot, but—if they don't know the answers to the questions—in a sense, they don't know the ending of the story.  Then every moment is that much more closer to approximating the uncertainty and the complexity of real life.

Image 

“Tre” opened in LA on Feb 1, 2008, Chicago on Feb 8, and San Francisco on Feb 15, for more information, visit www.trethemovie.com

Advertisement