An interview with Dan Sallitt, director of The Unspeakable Act | Bleader

Friday, May 17, 2013

An interview with Dan Sallitt, director of The Unspeakable Act

Posted By on 05.17.13 at 01:05 PM

The Unspeakable Act
  • The Unspeakable Act
The Unspeakable Act, which screens this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center (and with writer-director Dan Sallitt in attendance tonight and tomorrow afternoon), is an opaque independent drama about family ties. The title refers to incest, although the movie isn't concerned with shock value or sex. Drew Hunt notes in this week's issue, "In the grand tradition of French director Eric Rohmer, The Unspeakable Act is a story in which transgression is considered but never acted upon." Teenage siblings Jackie and Matthew—bookish, introspective types who sometimes recall J.D. Salinger characters—have an extremely close relationship, but neither seems so impulsive as to push it into the realm of taboo. The movie is a mystery of sorts, inviting viewers to ponder the unspoken motivations behind peculiar behavior. Last week I spoke with Sallitt about his influences, his experience as an employee of the Reader in the early 1980s, and his particular filmmaking methods. Like his other three features, Unspeakable Act was entirely self-financed, with Sallitt doing most of the leg work in preproduction—the intimate nature of his approach, I think, has a direct impact on the artisanal quality of his finished product.

Ben Sachs: Hi, Dan. I would have called sooner, but I was finishing up an old Andre de Toth movie on YouTube.

Dan Sallitt: Which one?


Oh, I love Pitfall! That's maybe one of his two best films.

I only just started getting into him. I reviewed Dark Waters last week, because someone's showing it in town . . .

And you got into background work?

Yeah. I started with the ones you can see on YouTube. The Indian Fighter is also on there.

I personally couldn't quite get into Dark Waters when I saw it. The Indian Fighter is kind of interesting, but Pitfall and Day of the Outlaw are the ones I'd nominate to the hall of fame. There's a bunch of others that are quite good.

Day of the Outlaw has played in Chicago in the last few years too.

I seem to remember that being a Doc Films favorite. I remember that coming up in the old Reader blurbs.

De Toth is just one of those Doc Films sort of directors. Edgar G. Ulmer is another one.

They were all second-generation auterists, those Doc Films guys of the 60s and 70s. And the first generation of Reader critics—Myron Meisel, Don Druker, Dave Kehr—they all came out of that scene. It was dyed-in-the-wool auterist thinking.

Did you work with them closely?

Meisel, who was the first critic for the Chicago Reader, went out to Los Angeles, and when they started the L.A. Reader in 1978, he became the first film critic there. In his day, he wrote quite a lot; he hasn't been writing so much recently. But the L.A. Reader picked him in '78, and he held onto that job until '81. He was the one who picked me out of obscurity. I was just a junior-level film buff sitting on the floor during 16-millimeter screenings. But when he went away for three weeks in 1980, he picked me to replace him. That was my first taste of fame.

Don Druker I never knew, but Dave Kehr. . . . When I took the job as a full-time first-stringer in '83, Dave Kehr was the Chicago Reader critic. He actually helped me get the job without knowing me. The L.A. Reader didn't give me the job right away, but the Chicago Reader had the ability to commission and reprint pieces, and they kept commissioning and reprinting from me in 1981 and '82. Finally, I think the L.A. Reader got the hint. When they lost a critic in '82, they picked me for the job at the beginning of '83. So I credit Dave Kehr with getting me the job by persistently reprinting me.

And how long were you chief critic at the L.A. Reader?

Two and a half years. I started at the beginning of '83. In the middle of '85 I bowed out and almost immediately started shooting my first movie.

When did you move to New York?

That wasn't until 1992. I logged about 15 years in Los Angeles. I was trying to move at various points. I wanted to move before I got that Reader job, but when I got it, it was an offer too good to refuse. Then I wanted to move again in '87, but I started working in computers and I was in a band. So it wasn't until '92 that I got this clear opportunity.

You still play music, right?

I do. I have a band—I'm the solo songwriter and lead vocalist—but I kind of put it on hold when I was making [Unspeakable Act], and all the aftermath related to the movie is still going on. So I think they're waiting for me to get around to reviving it, but I'm still tinkering with distribution and the DVD and stuff

I always think of bands as the things I've done in the long intervals between movies. But now that I'm getting a little older and ambition is weighing on me a little more, I'm worried that the intervals between movies will start shrinking.

Isn't that a good thing?

It's a good thing and a bad thing. I mean, it would be nice if I could relax about movies and just did one after another. As it turns out, that's not my life situation at all. I've got a full-time job; I need to hoard money and vacation time. But I think I take a few years between movies because they're so incredibly stressful and difficult [to make]. I want to rest on my laurels a little bit and have a normal life. It doesn't really happen, but I drag it out as long as I can. Then, slowly, self-contempt sets in as I start realizing I'm not doing enough and that drives me into another project. You need something to drive you, because the first part—preproduction—is the worst; it's very stressful for me.

Because there was such a long interval between your last film and The Unspeakable Act, I wondered if you spent a lot of time working on the script for it.

I do. Actually, a lot of the heavy lifting for me comes early on. It takes a long time to come up with an idea that I'm going to be excited about to generate an entire film. That takes a while. But once you have it, and you generate all these notes and you realize you have a feature, you've really done about 75 percent of making the movie. With Unspeakable Act, I started with a 16-page treatment, but it wasn't too hard to flesh it out into a feature. I wrote some scenes here and there, some stage directions, and soon enough it was a feature-length script. I tried to drag it out because I dreaded the passing of my civilian life, but eventually there's nothing to do but jump off the diving board and set a date for shooting.

The Unspeakable Act
  • The Unspeakable Act

Since you finance your movies yourself, it sounds like you don't face much external pressure in making them. That's a luxury few filmmakers have.

Absolutely, it's a luxury. But I don't know how to work otherwise! Obviously, there are disadvantages to financing movies yourself—the incredible stress of preproduction is partly the result, if you create solitude and take on an amount of work that's a little too much for just one person. I haven't had the chance to experiment yet with bigger production structures, but they cost more money, so it may not happen.

I think one of the advantages of your method is that, because you're spending so much time with your ideas before you shoot and because you're so intimately connected to all the aspects of production, the end result feels closer to literature than most movies that get called "literary." Watching the film almost feels like reading.

I don't think of it that way, but I think what you're saying is true. I'm into structure. I spent a lot of time on it with this one. You know, a lot of filmmakers cut out things in the editing stage if they don't think they work. I'd rather leave a scene in rather than put a hole in the structure; I care a lot about that. Also, I try to write dialogue that's naturalistic, but I don't seem to arrive at it. No one ever thinks the dialogue is naturalistic; everyone feels that it's very "written" dialogue and that the delivery is a little abstract. I don't know if it's as abstract as somebody like Hal Hartley or Whit Stillman or whether it's something that actually fits in people's mouths. It's so hard for me to judge I don't really think about it.

In the context of recent American independent filmmaking, there's such an emphasis placed on improvisation. So I think some audiences just find it jarring that the dialogue in Unspeakable Act is completely written.

I certainly wouldn't judge it as bad or good. Having something that's really written just suits my personality, the way it suited someone like Hitchcock or Ozu. Not that I'm comparing myself to them, but there's a certain kind of filmmaker in which you sense an anxiety that drives them to plan production very carefully.

I actually thought of Ozu during Unspeakable Act. The way you film the main staircase of the family's home is always from the same angle. There's such a concrete sense of place to it.

That was the very first shot that we shot in the house, which is not an accident. Because after you make a few movies, you realize that you better pick something very easy and routine for the first shot of your whole shoot. That way, you can say "cut" right away and everyone will feel like you're moving forward. I made the mistake of doing something really complex for the first shot of my very first movie. It was a disaster; I did 20 takes. I lost actors [because of it] and never got them back!

As for the staircase, I might have shot some different angles if I had the room. It was just a narrow hallway. [laughs] But the repetition became part of the movie, and we changed the lighting a bit to reflect different times of day and different seasons.

It seems important to the movie, though, because it's about such an insular family. I don't think the movie's about incest, actually. I think it's about a family that's so used to its private space that incest just feels inevitable in that environment.

Incest is like the key that gets you in. The film's about a lot of things, but it's certainly not a sociological portrait of incest in America. I'd be horrified if anybody took it as such. But incest was exciting as a subject because it got me going to create this character who did not observe normal social and moral codes. Once the subject was there, I could have the characters talk about it. I could work with the theme, play with it, throw out smoke screens to keep people from getting too close to the bottom of it.

It sounds like you were working from intuition after establishing the theme. I don't want to talk about influences, but as for where your ideas come from . . .

I wouldn't say I'm drawing from personal experience in a macro sense. I have no sister—I don't think I could have done this movie if I did. When you make up a story, you have fun with making things up. I have no particular interest in telling a story of my own. Anything that happens to me is simply a source of material. There are countless things in this film that I might have thought or heard somebody else say. I'm writing about a 17-year-old girl, which is obviously not in my direct psychological experience.

I was going to ask what made you land on Jackie as your protagonist.

I can't tell you. All I can say is that wasn't a strain to write. Take that to mean what you will.

Where did you find the house where the movie was shot?

A friend of mine lives in that house. I didn't know he was going to let me shoot there—originally I thought the movie was going to be shot in a small town in Pennsylvania similar to the one where I grew up. So I was looking for locations both in New York and in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where I grew up.

You know, when I watched the movie it took me a while to realize it took place in Brooklyn—I thought it did take place in a small town in Pennsylvania or maybe New England. It doesn't feel like a New York movie. There are no crowds, no street noises.

That neighborhood's amazing, isn't it? The lack of crowds is just something that happens sometimes in indie films, though I tried to sneak some crowds in there. Midwood Park's certainly not the Brooklyn most people think of, but actually a lot of people shoot there when they want a classic wood-frame house. It's a neighborhood the movie industry knows very well.

Once you knew you'd shoot there instead of in Pennsylvania, did your conception of the film change at all?

Not in fundamental ways. But it's important when you start trying to make something a local film to do honor to the locations, to connect them to each other. You've got to respect geography, which is a subset of respecting physical space.

You have quite a few young actresses in the movie. Did they shape the material at all?

I think it did on the set, because I'm not the sort of director who would make people deliver lines exactly in a certain way. Also everybody that you work with has some opinion of what they're doing, and that's going to affect what they're doing. But the casting was not part of the research of the film; it had been worked out by the time I put people in.

Tallie Medel in The Unspeakable Act
  • Tallie Medel in The Unspeakable Act

Did you find that the actresses identified with the characters you wrote?

I have a very external view of the cinema. I want to see surfaces, and I want to be in the dark about what goes on beneath. That's part of the excitement of cinema for me, seeing the outside of things. So I don't always turn that rock over.

I do happen to know that Tallie [Medel], my lead actress, in no way identified with her character—in some ways, she found her distasteful. I didn't know that when I was shooting; I didn't need to know either. All I needed to see was what she was doing, and the nature of her acting was very compatible with the mystery I wanted.

A tip that I take from [Eric] Rohmer and [cinematographer Nestor] Almendros is that I want the world to have its own integrity apart from whatever story I might be telling. I don't want the world to be collaborating with my story and trying to enhance it. From Rohmer, who's by far the biggest influence on my filmmaking, I learned that there's a big difference between narrative, which is a creation of people, and documentation, which is not a creation of people. And every concept we formulate to try and make sense of this falls short of encapsulating everything. He makes sure that we always feel the world is a little too big and complex and nuts and multifarious for any story to fit in it. Of course, he takes that one step further—very often his movies are about people telling stories to themselves that they can't quite make stick. I don't think I go quite that far in my work, but it's something I always have in mind.

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