“It’s the Only World There Is”: Talking to Dustin Guy Defa

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Dustin Guy Defa, currently of Greenpoint, has one feature to his name, the burrowing, wintry indie Bad Fevert from 2011, so at first glance it’s incongruous to see that the Film Society of Lincoln Center is mounting what’s effectively a career-spanning retrospective of his work. But the program of his short films which runs from the 14th to the 20th showcases a protean sensibility and wicked humor over the course of five shorts, none longer than twenty minutes.

In the crisp black and white Review, four friends sitting in a backyard, drinking tea, listen avidly as one of them describes the plot of the movie she’s just seen, with the simultaneous clarity and naivete of someone who’s never seen a movie before. Person to Person, with its almost album’s worth of soul deep cuts on the soundtrack, has a novelistic depth of texture, as record-store clerk Bene (Defa’s old roommate Bene Coopersmith) tells an audience about the girl who woke up on the floor of his apartment and refuses to leave—his raconteurish charm disguises, but not entirely, the burgeoning elements of the Noo Yawk hoarder-savant within his character, as he can’t quite manage to open up to this beautiful mystery that’s landed, quite literally, in his lap. In Declaration of War, Defa reedits CNN’s broadcast of George W. Bush’s address to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, so that what remains is seven minutes of nonstop standing ovation, like one of Stalin’s party conferences. The ten-minute Family Nightmare consists of clips from Defa’s family’s home videos from around the time of his childhood, in the 80s and 90s, as various aunts and uncles mug for the camera and let the good times roll, while the rerecorded dialogue (Defa looped it himself) is slowed-down to sound overtly demonic, presaging the end-title cards describing the deaths of the various family members from complications of addiction. The way the film is structured, with its gradual reveal of the darker side of this America’s Funniest-era home-video clowning, it feels like coming out the other side of childhood, and coming to recognize, and resolve, the pathologies of adulthood in general and of the adults in one’s own life in particular. (And that realization is aided to a certain extent by video technology which was then common but which looks crummy to modern eyes; and by clothes and hair that, if they were stylish at one point, aren’t anymore.) At the nexus of therapy and archivism, with a strong conceptual hand, Family Nightmare is a major film.

Defa answered some quick questions from me over email.

The actors in Review are wonderful—somewhat stilted, in a way that makes the premise comic, but also hushed, so earnest to hear of and to resolve for themselves this dangerous and perplexing work of art. How much of the performance element was implicit in the original concept of the film, and how much was discovered in concert with the performers? In general, do you direct actors differently in a short than in a feature? I ask because a five-minute short is often much more conceptually unified…

No, I don’t work differently depending on the length of the film. I only work differently depending on the actor. But of course with a feature you’re able to create more fully-fleshed-out characters. As for Review, there aren’t any characters, not really; but certainly faces and feelings, all coming across because of the writing, the order of shots, the editing, and the actors. But we know nothing about these people other than that they drink tea in a backyard and that they watch movies. It’s nice to know nothing about them.

Did the idea for Review originate with Taxi Driver specifically, or did that particular canonical film come later?

I tried to do it with Lord of the Rings but it didn’t work right.

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I’m curious about the background of Family Nightmare (as I think anyone who watches it would be). Time is a major element of the film so I’m curious about whether you’d always had this footage or whether you rediscovered it, and whether this footage and film ran parallel to any personal reckoning. Sorry if that’s an intrusive question, but they are your home movies, after all… I’m also curious about the process. I’ve read you went through 40 hours of footage—what were you looking for, when winnowing it all down? How long did it take?

It’s obviously a deeply personal film that I needed to make at that time in my life. There is a personal reckoning, sure, and making it was a certain experience, and then showing it was another experience; I don’t want to use words like cathartic or life-changing or rewarding, but things happened for me; let’s call it growth, and let’s say I forced myself to grow. It’s a hard one to talk about. Digging through the footage, I was looking for stuff that would tell the story I wanted to tell: the damage that drug and substance abuse has had on my family. And to abstractly express what it felt like living in that environment as a child. It’s not necessarily how it felt, not really. It’s a warped sense of it, a bad dream to reflect of how things would end up, the cause and the effect of the damage. My times as a child were pretty great and a lot of fun. I didn’t know a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff, nor did I think or realize that a lot of my family members were addicts. When you’re a kid, your environment is your world. It’s the only world there is.

Whereas Family Nightmare deals with personal demons, and home movies, Declaration of War is political and features archival footage—but it works very well as a companion piece, returning to the by-now dated audiovisual record of this past moment, laying bare its latent aggression as a way of confronting still- festering wounds. It’s interesting that the film, a satire of post-9/11 political theater, was made in 2013—what brought you back to that footage? Or is this an idea you’d been living with for a while?

I’d been wanting to do something for awhile and I had a bunch of ideas; I might still swing back to do one or two of them if I can figure them out. Dubya is such a fascinating character to me. He’s a perfect character for that time period; he seems fictional, perfectly fictional. What a surreal time it was.

There’s a sort of retro New York aspect to Person to Person, between Bene’s leather jacket, the ungentrified locations, the slight grain of the images—were there any films you looked at in preparation for putting this one together?

There wasn’t anything we looked at for it, no, but I’m sure there were a lot of subconscious influences. After a couple of screenings I started to see some Seinfield and R. Crumb in there. Not R. Crumb in specifics but some kind of characterization or something. I love Crumb.

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