Last night’s film awards announcements at South By Southwest brought a near-sweep for Natural Selection, a religious-themed, crowd-pleasing comedy that warmed the narrative jury and audiences alike. But for sheer dramatic audacity and cinematic verve, it can’t hold a candle to Matt D’Elia’s debut feature American Animal. D’Elia wrote, produced, directed and starred in this brash, abrasive chamber piece about Jimmy, a terminally ill young man who lives in his own world, and who enthralls and abuses his friends in equal measure. Jimmy’s fierce, button-pushing behavior may not wear well on everyone, but as the film goes on, his fear of mortality and desperate desire for significance make a poignant counterpoint to his bravado.
The film itself is an ambitious attempt to live up to a host of D’Elia’s cinematic role models: references abound to the likes of Stanley Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Bob Fosse, Martin Scorsese and many others. But more than just aping or paying homage to predecessors, D’Elia’s filmmaking is both an exuberant celebration and tormented deconstruction of cinematic immortality, daring itself to live up to the standards of its idols.
Q: How did you get the idea for the film?
D’Elia: I was sick in bed for two years in my twenties. It was a number of things, but it started with acute and chronic sinusitis at the same time. After surgery, I had a growth in my throat, to the point that I couldn’t breathe and I had emergency surgery. I had three surgeries in six months, at the end of which I had lost 35 pounds. It was during the recovery process that I got the idea of the film, because I had a lot of time on my hands, and I was just sitting there, wanting to be out in the world, making movies. I was cooped up and starting to think of crazy things, which led to the character of Jimmy.
Q: Why did you decide to cast yourself?
D’Elia: I wrote it for someone else, but as we got closer to shooting, we weren’t getting responses from the actors we wanted for the role, like Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Ryan Gosling. I was going to have to trust an unknown. I felt less comfortable just casting someone. I of course knew the part, and I was comfortable directing myself, so if an unknown was going to do it, I’ll do it. You’ve gotta make a name for yourself somehow.
Q: What was it like directing yourself?
D’Elia: With this film, where it’s so lead-centric and everyone’s reacting to the lead, so I found that in directing, I didn’t have to say much. I could flip in and out of being Jimmy. The crew and the cast enabled me to do that, from going into this crazy character to switch to calmly giving directions.
Q: With its intense dialogues, the script has a strong theatrical element, though the visuals are very cinematic.
D’Elia: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was a major influence both in the writing and Mike Nichols’ excellent direction. The source material was a play, and what Nichols was able to do was make it into a very cinematic film. So we upped the theatricality, with the music, the framing, the colors and objects in the apartment. We got some bold lighting schemes, and did camera movements only when it was warranted, and really not do that common mumblecore thing which is make it handheld and not care how it looks.
Q: Both your filmmaking and Jimmy’s behavior make heavy use of movie references. It seems that in both cases, there’s passionate love for movies and life, but also an anxiety that everything great has been done before. You have a very powerful monologue towards the end that expresses as much.
D’Elia: Jimmy’s a poster child for a nihilistic post-modernism where he feels that everything’s been done, so why bother? The walls of his apartment are his world, and everything that’s been done has been recreated by Jimmy. There’s really no self for Jimmy except for all the things he’s compiled. Everything he’s seen, everything he’s heard, everything he’s read, everything he wishes he was but isn’t. That’s why there are all these movie references in the film, because Jimmy’s referencing them. But in the filmmaking world, we’re also referencing them.
But the monologue in particular, that’s his necessary view of the world. He has no time, it’s all compressed into one night. And that monologue is a culmination of his desperation and his need to communicate. If he’s not being watched himself, then what is his life?
Q: What are you working on next?
D’Elia: It’s more of a commercial endeavor, a genre film. Hells Bells and Buckets of Blood. It’s kind of a neo-Western thriller, set during the Vietnam War. We’re shooting it in Texas, so I’m looking forward to spending more time around here.