September 10, 2002|Peter Sollett had been judged by his cover in most of the interviews preceding mine at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. As I was packing up to leave his hotel room, he thanked me for not asking, to put it in no uncertain terms, What the hell's an upper-middle-class white guy doing make a movie about a Latino neighbourhood on the lower east side of Manhattan? The truth is, I couldn't care less--been pigeonholed a time or two myself based on appearances. The beauty of NYU film-school grad Sollett's feature-length writing and directing debut Raising Victor Vargas (an expansion of his like-themed short film Five Feet High and Rising) is that he could've set it anywhere. The milieu is all but incidental (he picked the film's central location based on the Latino community's enthusiastic response to an open casting call), though it does lend verisimilitude to the boy-meets-girl story basic. Call it apolitically political.
With four days left in 2002's ten-day TIFF, Raising Victor Vargas remains the best movie I've yet seen there. It was an honour to speak with the unassuming Sollett while he's still enjoying some level of anonymity (not for long, I tell you). In good spirits the whole time, he begged me to add muscles to his photograph before posting it online; I guess talent is never enough.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: I know the film was originally called Long Way Home and I was wondering why you changed the title to Raising Victor Vargas. Also, what was the significance of "Long Way Home"?
PETER SOLLETT: It's not really that interesting--there was another film coming out in the States with that title before us. The significance of "Long Way Home," the title comes up at the end of the movie, and it's kind of a comment on what's gonna happen when all these people leave us, and what the comment simply is is that for all the people we've met through the story, there's a great distance remaining to be traveled to get to where they need to get to. To learn how to deal with each other and be happy.
And you're fine with the title change?
Yeah, it's fine. I'd certainly prefer to have a different title than have a lot of confusion resulting in people not seeing the movie.
How did Tim Orr become involved with the project? His work on George Washington is so stunning...
I did a short movie before this that I shot myself, so I'd never really worked with a "director of photography." He was somebody who was suggested by one of the producers, Scott Macaulay, and I said, "Yeah, well okay let's see something," and it was George Washington--and the thing is just beautiful. It's like The Tim Orr Show, that movie, for me, for my money. It was gorgeous, so then my concern was that movie's scope--some of the exteriors, that lighting... How would he just shoot in 16mm after that, in tiny locations, a lot of repetitions? But he's an incredibly laid-back, generous, accommodating guy.
Did you shoot on 16 for lack of money or was there an aesthetic motive?
I wanted to have the freedom to shoot a lot of film, that's part 'A.' Part 'B,' the locations were very, very tight. Just shooting in something like 'scope where the cameras are big and the magazines are enormous, it just would've been more of a curse than a blessing.
Before I get into your improvisation techniques with the cast, how pre-planned were the film's visuals?
Well, we didn't storyboard. What we did was we tried to sort of block out our coverage a little bit just to make sure spatially everything would make sense. It was planned-out in the sense that we knew the shooting needed to serve the performances, and that we couldn't indulge in the impulse to reverse the priorities in that way. Part of Tim's job was to create as much freedom for the actors to work [in as possible].
I was struck by how glossy the cinematography looked while maintaining a freeform style.
I think that might just be me and Tim working together. I'm more of a sort of freeform, don't-impose-anything-on-the-actors guy, let them do what they need to do, and I think Tim is maybe a little more classic in his approach, normally.
The scene at the end, when the telephone rings and Victor unlocks it and Vicki goes to call up Carlos...there's a lot of movement in there, but it's all sort of static and tracks with them in one shot, whereas my tendency probably just would've been to whip the camera around a lot more.
You had the ideal experience of working with child actors. First of all, how did you find these people?
All sorts of different ways, they came from different places. Victor answered a flyer on the street, Judy we met at her high school, Grandma is a relative of our casting director. So it was just all over the map, sweeping the neighbourhoods, you know?
A lot of their true personalities were incorporated into their roles?
Yeah, yeah. I'm close to Victor and Judy and Melonie, in particular, we've spent a lot of time together over the last eighteen months. We're friends, a normal relationship like that, you cook up a lot of stuff. It's not precisely down to events and things, maybe only sort of thematically--in terms of that it's patterned after them.
I guess I was most curious about Altagracia Guzman--how much of herself she's revealing in that movie. It's as if there's no artifice to that performance whatsoever.
She's a 74-year-old first-timer. Just that alone--there aren't too many 74-year-olds who are doing anything for the first time, let alone making movies. I think she's very, very close to her character with one exception, and that is her behaviour under pressure. Grace would never ever ever snap like that, try to kick a kid out like that in the name of the well-being of the others in her care. And in fact it was a point of tension between us because she understood why it needed to happen in the story in the sense of where it all ended up, but she thought that her friends in the neighbourhood would see her in the movie and think she was sort of a bad grandmother.
And how did you put her at ease?
"Look, right, it's a movie. We know that Julia Roberts isn't an assassin or whatever. And by the end of the movie, you're all better off together, you're all closer."
(laughs) Who are your influences? I'll tell you three names that popped into my head while I was watching Raising Victor Vargas: Robert Altman, Mike Leigh, and Larry Clark. Mike Leigh because he develops his screenplays through a rehearsal process similar to yours.
I see the relationship that you're pointing out--I wouldn't say that any of those guys are real influences on me. Mine are...somebody along the lines of a Cassavetes, or a Fellini, or Truffaut. Or Scorsese. Even Bergman is. I know the movie doesn't look like it has anything to do with Bergman, but the guy is an inspiration in the discipline of his writing, he's very, very precise. You can divine that and learn from it even if you're making a movie about gambling, you know what I mean?
You mention Bergman's writing discipline, yet if I'm to understand, your actors never even saw the screenplay for Raising Victor Vargas. How did you stay on course?
For my money, discipline is...
(The doorbell rings; Sollett "intercepts" a sandwich he ordered from room service, its contents unknown as he leaves it lidded for the remainder of our conversation.)
So, Bergman, right?... His thing is the economy. Very little movement, very little set, very little music. I think that you look at that, and it's just a testament to how important really understanding your material is. If you know--truly--what's going on in every scene, and you know the need and the want, and the method with which the character's going to pursue those needs and wants, you can put yourself in the position where you can be more flexible about how you get there.
Was there ever a point where you felt compelled to jump into a shot and say, "N-n-no, wait, we're going too far."?
Sometimes you do have to do that, but you never do at first. You get what you're getting until you're getting it, and then you really start to stray, when you start to talk about what you're gonna have for lunch next Sunday, then you give a little bit of direction. But the direction was...not on a need-to-know basis, but on necessity. I wasn't gonna say anything unless the scene needed guidance. If they can find their own way through it, that's better than me. People don't go see the movie for me, they go because of them, and if they can do it on their own then they should.
How closely does the film line up with the official screenplay?
Pretty close. Structurally it's identical. But in terms of dialogue, it's a whole lot different. Victor suggesting to Nino that the way they get the attention of a girl is by licking their lips in a sexy way or the argument over who broke the telephone--I mean, you can't write that stuff, you just sort of have to let them go at each other and try to cut it.
What if you wanted another angle of something, how would you go about recreating a totally spontaneous moment, if you needed coverage?
Well, we tried not to shoot too many takes, that would make it go stale. We tried to keep everybody's energies up, and you just take the best bits and pieces [in post-production] and try to make sense of it.
Do you have any desire to work in a more disciplined environment in the future, with professional actors--quote-unquote--reciting a script?
There are lessons that I learned doing this that I would take to that, and then I'm sure it'll work the other way again, I'll do something with that that I'll bring back to this. The thing is, I think, that if you're going to subscribe to the idea that you're going to cast the best person for each part, that doesn't necessarily always mean the biggest star. I think you can mix it up in a perfectly acceptable, interesting way.
What kind of movie will you do next?
It's gonna be very different. I don't have it all ironed out yet but I can tell you that the central theme of thing will have to do with the responsibility that lives in the place where fantasy and reality meet.
I know that's abstract. To give you an example--I'm sure we all have fantasies that we would like to carry out only we don't pursue them because when one obtains them there's a certain amount of responsibility that comes along with that.
An example of a film that fits into that category?
Well, uh, I dunno, maybe it's, uh... I'm sure Fellini's got ten of 'em. I dunno, maybe City of Women is. Maybe 8½.
I'll stick with those two. That's a good question. I need to think about that, actually.
Why don't we see the neighbourhood depicted on-screen in Raising Victor Vargas very often [in movies]? I was struck by your comment in the pressbook that if you see the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York, it's usually in a shot of Matt Damon passing through.
I dunno, I don't wanna say something that will indict the entire film industry or Hollywood filmmaking, but...
The likelihood of developing a story like this, in this type of environment, is slim. For a lot of reasons. Because the people who live in this neighbourhood don't look like the kind of people who draw mass numbers of audiences to theatres on opening weekend. There's a common assumption--by some filmmakers--that people don't wanna go to the movies and have to see...poverty. A lot of people operate on this thing that people want to escape--the fact of the matter is that most people in their day-to-day life do see poverty or are living in it, or have had some sort of personal experience with it, and poverty doesn't feel good.
That's not to say that it always feels bad, either. I think this film is doing that thing--you know, they don't have any money, but it's not a catastrophe, because there's no contrast. It's not like there was a time when everyone lost it or something.
At the risk of sounding like an asshole, when the film started I worried these people were really going to resent where they are or resort to violence at some point. That it was just this gentle portrait was so refreshing.
Well thank you, that was one of the goals. And it's hard not to lean on some of those genre conventions as a crutch when you're writing the thing. When somebody says to me, "I was waiting for Nino to find a gun"--of course Nino does get caught doing something in the bathroom that his grandmother doesn't appreciate, instead of that.
The fact of the matter is most of these guys... I certainly have never had any interaction--thankfully--with firearms, I've never dealt drugs, everybody has their experiences with drugs but it's not the centrepiece of my life. And I did the same thing with them, it's not about drugs and guns and poverty. If you pulled Victor aside--the character or the guy--and said, "Who are you? What are you about?" I don't think he would say, "I'm about being poor. I'm about my socio-economic affiliations." He'd say, "Well I wanna be an actor, I'd really like to find a girl I'm happy with." Like everybody else, you know?
Had you considered shooting Raising Victor Vargas on digital video? It's the rage.
I did. I knew that financially we were gonna have to think about it. But... I think one day, and this day hasn't come yet, someone will come along or a group of people will come along over time and build up a vocabulary for shooting fiction films in digital video--and I'm not that guy. I think unless you're that guy, you really have to think about whether or not video as a medium is still gonna stand as a bit of a roadblock between your story and your audience. Plus, I think film is really beautiful.