July 10, 2005|Dressed in a New York uniform of black-on-black and in town for a cup of coffee to discuss his feature debut, the Big Apple roundelay Heights, Chris Terrio is slight and slightly nervous. Modeled loosely after Shakespeare's "Macbeth", the film is defiantly literary in its approach to metaphors and doppelgängers--something that makes sense when one considers Mr. Terrio's background as a Harvard and Cambridge-bred English scholar who turned his attentions away from academia's air-conditioned Ivory Tower to toil in the boiler room of cinema and its attendant indignities of PR tours and ink-stained wretches. When I met Mr. Terrio, I was so exhausted I had prepared mainly by watching his film a second time an hour before getting in the car and hunting down a stray, orphan quote attributed to a "Chris Terrio" commenting on Cambridge by way of Harvard. I wasn't at all certain that they were one and the same person, but deadlines and borderline depression being what they are, I was ready to make an ass of myself. The happy discovery, of course, is that Mr. Terrio is delightful: self-effacing, smart, and still-vital in the way of a young filmmaker not yet soured on his profession and his peers--who hasn't learned that it's become all but verboten in the modern mediascape to admit to loving Lars von Trier and hating the low bestial tingle-moments that lace crap like Cinderella Man, and to have something passionate to say about culture, such as it is fresh into the twenty-first century.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: What were you studying at Cambridge?
CHRIS TERRIO: English Modernism mostly, specifically phenomenological philosophy and how that affected ideas about time and subjectivity.
Virginia Woolf, then, and T.S. Eliot?
Woolf, particularly, was my undergraduate thesis but then into Eliot and Heidegger. Heidegger, especially, rocked me.
Lots of his ideas seep into film theory.
No question. Heidegger is endlessly applicable to film but I say that with this strong caveat that I'm nowhere advanced enough making movies to have even thought about how to apply this stuff to Heights and, more, I worry that if I try to do it I'd come off as this pseudo-intellectual poseur and the film would suffer as a result of my ignorance. Theory is one thing and practice is another and I'm nowhere near to the point, if I ever get to the point, where I can blend the two like, say, someone like Godard does.
The line that separates critic from filmmaker.
Exactly right. Some day I'd like to do the film that's closest to my heart and my training, you know--maybe some day I'd do an adaptation of something like The Waves or To The Lighthouse and really see if I have the muscle to be faithful to Woolf in a different medium. Some of my short films play with ideas of time and repetition--they're almost more editor exercises.
Heights has an overlapping narrative structure.
It does, it does, and consciously of course, but that's more a product of my screenwriter and her original concept and play than it is from me playing at Woolf.
Any successful adaptations of Woolf out there in your mind?
Only Orlando for lack of, really, any others that have even come close, that even approached Woolf.
It's possible that Sally Potter's work lends itself to that sort of suffocating self-regard.
That's really true. And Orlando, besides, was so different from the other books--really a love letter. But I'm so much a Woolf lover that even in mentioning Orlando and how much I love Tilda Swinton in that film, I have to say that it falls pretty far short--not to mention Mrs. Dalloway, which, no matter how great Vanessa Redgrave is in that film, is essentially not a Woolf anymore after all was said and done there. You'd think with the script and the actor, they would've gotten closer--but it's tricky.
In the Cut is very Woolfian.
It is? I love Jane Campion, but we were actually shooting when it spent its two weeks or so in the theatre so I wasn't able to see it. [Woolf] had this great language from the 18th century that came from her father, this formal language, and she used it to channel these unapproachable, inexpressible things--like she was trying to reach the ineffable somehow--and film for me was something like that, this channel for the inexpressible. I was not a big fan of The Hours, I thought that it was just a ventriloquism of Woolf in a lot of ways, but there's one scene...
The dead bird?
Yes! The one scene where she's lying on the ground, looking at a dead bird that has this strange, pseudo-mystical moment that suggested what the rest of the film could have been.
It's the one moment that brought to mind her best work, The Waves--that feeling of tension in organic formalism, the fission of which begins to touch at that mysterious sublime in Woolf.
Exactly, exactly right--that's my favourite of hers as well. It's the one that whenever I feel myself floating up, I return to, to ground me. There's something so comforting about art that doesn't hold your hand--like Campion's films, you know. They are what they are and they defy you to keep up.
So go from where you're coming from to something like Cinderella Man.
Cinderella Man, Jesus. All these cheap "tingle moments"--the moppet children asking for another loaf of bread when the script demands a shiver, all this idea that The Depression is romantic somehow, all the On the Waterfront shots on the dock sanitized for mass consumption. All this constant and shameless pandering of the American Dream. Art lives at the edge, you know. The very things that are required to get a film off the ground are, most of the time, at odds with most real artists. It relies on so many more things than something like theatre or poetry, things that you can rip off and go to the coffee shop with a guitar or a friend and there, it's in the air. And what's wrong with so much of cinema nowadays--and this isn't original--is that there's so much of an interest in bottom line stuff that the reasons you get into a project in the first place get misplaced along the way.
Example with your film?
It sounds disingenuous to say, but I might be too close to it to be objective about it--you ask me today and Heights is as close to what we wanted on the screen as we could get it. But in saying that I look back and I think about the times that we were about to be shut down for want of a few thousand dollars--and this is even with the support of our amazing cast and with reels in the can--and I do wonder if I didn't make equivocations along the way.
Do you hold the audience culpable?
I think that to some degree that certain critics are culpable for that culture, but that audiences... Very often a film just finds its audience, sort of a law of natural selection. I try not to blame the audience. I think that there are a lot of not-thoughtful critics, especially with the dawn of the Internet, but, too, with this new commercialization of a lot of major daily papers. I can get on board with a thoughtful "bad" review, but so many of these things are just thrown out there in this spooge of cute writing and ill-considered bile. A lot of it that feels attention-getting to me, [and serves] to damage the film and to damage the popular conception of film criticism as well.
The "cute" factor kills me. I think of them as Gene Shalit-isms, crap that most people stop doing in fifth grade.
Exactly--but that kind of expediency and shallow humour is infiltrating our most respected publications. Stuff that would never be tolerated in the columns of any other section of the paper, are tolerated as just par for the course in the movie section. But I don't mean to sound like one of those bitter show biz-types who just bash critics...
But it makes sense because of your background in lit. Few disciplines are as indebted to the art of good criticism than literature.
Exactly right. It's hard because I like reading good critics and good criticism, but the other side of it is that I get enraged by thoughtless, illiterate writing--in any form. Offhand is sometimes the only hand.
You sound personally stung.
I made the mistake of reading a review today that skewed to the negative and the whole time I was thinking that you can hate the film if you want to, but at least do me the courtesy of running it through a spell-check for God's sake. At least look at the press kit so you spell the actors' names correctly. There's a real lack of respect embedded in that kind of sloppiness. I mean, I'm sure the guy's just a moron, but you don't show up for a job interview in shorts and flip-flops--shouldn't your voice also be your best foot forward?
Probably live longer if you don't read your own reviews.
I know, I know. I got a call from Ruth Prawer Jhabvala just the other day and she warned me pretty strenuously not to read my own press. That no longer how long you manage to last in this business, you'll never grow rhinoceros skin and there will always be something that gets through and paralyzes you.
You indict the Internet...
I do, and perhaps I do it too glibly. It's hard and it's complicated. You look at the democratic ideal behind the Internet: this feeling that you can have the same amount of push as say the NEW YORK TIMES critic or the WASHINGTON POST critic while you're sitting in your basement and from where I'm coming from, that idea is really attractive to me. What's not attractive about that levelling of the playing field? So I'm not saying that Internet criticism is a bad thing in that there are voices that deserve to be heard that wouldn't have in the past because there are a finite number of jobs at the traditional papers--but hand-in-hand with that are the multitude of voices that really don't deserve to be heard--but they're loud and so they are allowed to change the environment for the worse.
An environment that disdains nuance and education?
Absolutely. The environment overseas is so much different. You mention Proust in a pub and someone buys you a pint for the conversation. You mention Proust in a bar in most places in the United States and you get, if not nothing, then hostility.
|Jesse Bradford in Heights|
Tell me about how you think you honour nuance and scholarship in Heights.
Let me put it this way that the epiphanies that happen in my own life don't come with loud crashing cymbals--symbols?--and flashes of light and explosions--they come in quiet bursts, in non-violent conversations or just walking down the street and thinking. For me, the theatre is those moments with words, monologues, and the cinema is those moments in images. The film's not free of histrionics, of course, but those moments I hope are part of the façade of the characters and not the quiet moments that these characters share with the audience without interference from me or the screenplay. My hope for the film is that things come through that are subtle. I never wanted to judge the characters, to impose that kind of pat moral resolution about people changing and all that.
A little Fellini in there.
I hope it's in there--he was in my mind a lot as we did a lot of the character exits.
Speaking of which, tell me more about the doors and doorways in your picture.
Doors, again, are something that are hopefully in there beneath the radar. But clearly, they represent transitional points for me and for the characters as they're going through their transformations and, in saying that, I'm not suggesting that they're experiencing "growth" so much as change. The main design element of a lot of it was to give that sort of structure in it visually.
The framed picture of a doorway early on suggested to me a metaphor for film.
That's a fascinating idea and it makes sense, right, the glassed-in portal. I think that's a great read--that's exactly what it is. There's a scene later in a water tower where he goes into a door where the people who lived there had never been in there, and that seemed, too, to be a perfect metaphor for the kinds of discovery that film can provide.
There's a theatricality to entrance/exit themes as well as to the wearing of masks in your film.
I really wanted to look at that. There's a moment where Glenn is getting ready for a dress rehearsal: the moment before you're on and the moment after. A moment later, too, where she confronts her husband and his lover, keeps her mask, passes a janitor, turns a corner, and then, alone with the audience, breaks down. Again, nothing new but for me to like my film better, I needed to have these visual themes--observing and watching and coming and going--to anchor the piece a little. My next film is going to be more about people who are not performers or photographers, that aren't watched and watching so much. More "ordinary," if you will.
The irony of that--and this is Lacan's irony, I think--is that they're being observed by us.
Exactly right--it's a conundrum, this use of negative space in film. I think that the third act of Heights is really a lot closer to the kind of film that I'd like to eventually be making if I'm lucky enough to ever get to make another one. A lot more held-beats, a lot more trust in just the image to tell the story.
Why wasn't the rest of your film more like the kind of film you'd like to be making?
I was constrained by my inexperience a lot. By the end I was starting to develop my own voice. I had an argument with my editor about that scene where the Jesse Bradford character is getting dressed for an off-off Broadway production and says a little joke and he wanted to cut it on that, the classic sort of rimshot, but for me, for my sensibilities, I was more interested in the awkwardness following the joke. It's fun made at the expense of this very personal little project there, after all, so it's more complicated than an off-the-cuff remark made by a witty guy. That line holds all sorts of gravity for those characters and if we just hold a little longer to see that discomfort, the idea that you have to watch people squirm... That's what I want to hit and it's something that I'd like to explore in my future projects a lot more.
It's about awareness of your own voyeurism. Modernism.
Exactly--the infinite regress of watching and being watched: suddenly you're aware of the medium for a second. The risk is that you knock people right out of your film. Whenever you change format, change pace, you play a really risky game and it's all too possible that it's a line that I don't know enough not to cross at this point, but I hope to get the chance to learn how to do it better.