The only film at this year’s New Directors/New Films to screen on 35mm is Short Stay, the feature debut of Ted Fendt, who works at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as a projectionist. In fact Short Stay, like Fendt’s previous shorts, was shot on 16mm, and like the shorts it’s self-funded and more or less perfectly reflective of a singular sensibility. Shooting as usual again in his hometown of Haddonfield, New Jersey, and then Philadelphia, Fendt as usual follows a sequence of low-key, curiously unresolved, ineffably melancholy misadventures, as his directionless protagonist Mike (Mike MacCherone) switches a job at a pizza place in a suburban strip mall for a sublet and a job giving walking tours in historic Philadelphia (… and this is where my mom once made an ice cream cake for one of the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1970s…).
The grain of the film, and Fendt’s neutrally illustrative filming style (point the camera at the person or thing and keep that camera or thing in the center of an uncluttered frame) give Short Stay a curiously retro style reminiscent of the talkier side of the French New Wave, an avowed influence. Also retro is the focus on everyday ethics: where to sleep in someone else’s apartment, how to act at a party, how to ask for money from a friend. Short Stay is pushed further to abstraction by the deliberately flat performances, even as the dialogue flirts with absurdism.
Ted Fendt, who’s lived in Sunset Park “for a while” (“When I go to the corner bakery I am addressed in Spanish and it is assumed that I will respond in Spanish. This is my kind of place”) answered a few questions of mine over email.
How much do you work with your actors on performance? Is the consistent lack of affect from Mike MacCherone, or the complementary supporting performances, something you have to shape?
With most of the cast, I rehearse a scene or two prior to shooting. The goal is to accustom them to reciting lines that are either not their own or to find the right wording for a story of theirs they will re-tell for the camera. At first, this can be rather stilted or awkward—like speaking a foreign language for the first time—but before long we reach a tone that feels right. We talk only about intonation, inflection, and pauses, never psychology. The dry, sober quality of the dialogue and the lack of the telegraphing of emotion to the audience through gesture or speech is one of the aspects of the film with which I am most happy.
Are the socieoeconomic circumstances of your characters realistic? That is, would Mike really have the money—from voluntary-donation walking tours, meager savings from the pizza place, and maybe help from his English-teacher mother—to sublet a place within Philadelphia for the summer, as he does in Short Stay? Or—this is more like the real question, here—are you interested in exploring a particular milieu, or primarily in grappling with more abstract interpersonal concerns in the interstitial spaces between the everyday business of life?
Rent in Philadelphia is quite inexpensive, and one can indeed live off money earned giving the tours. The tour company in the film exists, and though my friend Mark is in the process of selling it, a number of my friends have lived off that work for periods of time. Usually while looking for other work, though.
I am interested in exploring more abstract issues, but grounding them in a social reality, both in terms of story details I take from the lives of the cast, as well as the use of documentary techniques like the use of direct, location sound. This kind of seeping-in of contemporary social reality, or simply the intense immediacy of what is being recorded by the camera and microphone, was much more prevalent in the Hollywood films of the early 1930s, when film technology was more primitive, and I would like to get back to that.
I’m curious about your location scouting. The way my mom describes Haddonfield, where she grew up (on Washington Avenue) in the 50s and 60s, it seems like some kind of leafy suburban paradise, though in Short Stay it’s a lot of strip malls, self-service beer coolers in wood-panelled bars, and empty hockey arenas. Similarly, there’s a real shift in Philadelphia between the very postcollegiate (blank white walls, cheap wood cabinets, empty bottles) bachelor apartment Mike sublets, and the more thoughtfully decorated multistory apartment he gets a glimpse of when he’s crashing with the two female friends-of-friends. How much of a designed element are the locations you use; and how much is it contingent upon what you as a self-financing indie filmmaker have access to?
To answer your question in reverse.
Ideally, a filmmaker’s desired aesthetic and his or her financial means should be in harmony. Or, the financial and practical limitations should determine the form and content. For the most part, this kind of harmony seems primarily to occur in the world of experimental cinema, but there is no reason it cannot exist in the narrative world too.
For my film, I was nourishing and augmenting the story based on what was at my disposal.
I had the idea of Mike leaving Dan and Mark’s to go to Marta and Meg’s prior to seeing Marta and Meg’s apartment. When I went for the first time, the differences between their apartment and Mark and Dan’s were quite evident—the one being more thoughtfully designed, warmer, homier, and the other being colder, harsher, a bit less inviting. I was already thinking of the shift from a more hostile to a more welcoming environment, and the natural contrast in the decor and lighting of the two apartments enhanced this. If the girls’ apartment had been drastically different, the film would have gone in a different direction.
There is a more pleasant suburban aspect to Haddonfield, as you a describe—very nice colonial architecture, lots of trees, dark, empty streets to walk at night—but there are also uglier aspects, like any suburban American town, that tend not to be depicted in films and that I wanted to show. These are common aspects of the lives of people who live in these areas and it would seem dishonest to me to exclude them from the frame.
Maybe a related question: How did shooting on 16mm affect the tone of Short Stay, would you say? In terms of the visual palette available to you, and the camera set-ups that you’re able to do or that feel natural to do with the equipment you have—what is the balance between sensibility versus serendipity in things like affect, dramatic rhythm, shot sequencing?
For me, shooting on film—regardless of the gauge—involves committing to a visual aesthetic in camera. The look of the film is baked into the negative and next to nothing is to be done in post-production. May Kodak one day bring back Ektachrome and the lower-latitude EXR negative of the 1990s!
We had a handful of guiding aesthetic parameters for the camera: to film each shot with a 25mm prime lens, to film each scene from one camera position, and to film each scene in one sequence-shot. The principle here was to present a coherent spatial sense of the locations. Often this combination of formal rules would result in a very limited number of places to put the camera—especially in Mark and Dan’s apartment—leading to unexpected, surprising compositions that we might not have found otherwise, like the upside-down shot of Mike sleeping on the floor, or cuts between similar compositions when cutting between scenes in the same location.
Why Philly and South Jersey, instead of New York?
Too many movies are already shot in New York! Besides, the people who inspired me to go out and make this film and my previous shorts all live in New Jersey and Philadelphia.
Do you think your films are nostalgic?
I do not think of the films as nostalgic, or as containing nostalgia, and I try consciously to keep my own feelings out of the films. Films allow us to have a nearly one-to-one experience of another person or place, and I would prefer the audience’s contact with the immediacy of the physical presence of the people on the screen be as direct as possible. I find this to be the quality I am fondest of in films I like: those of Frederick Wiseman, Marguerite Duras, Straub-Huillet, Robert Beavers, William Wellman, or Leo McCarey, among others.