Zach Clark’s White Reindeer, which premiered at SXSW this year and recently played to a packed house at Brooklyn’s BAMCinemafest, where Clark is currently a resident, is a natural expansion of the filmmaker’s absurdly silly and refreshingly genuine oeuvre. One of the most tender and sincere celebrations of the joys of the holiday season, it also happens to feature murder, drug benders, and a redemptive, zen-like stripper named Fantasia. The hilariously deadpan and surprisingly touching melodrama is also the first collaboration between two major talents to watch in low budget filmmaking: writer/director Clark (previously of Modern Love is Automatic and Vacation!) and lead actress Anna Margaret Hollyman, who anchors the film with a performance that’s a perfect showcase for her offbeat, comedic screen presence and dramatic chops.
When it’s inevitably released around Christmastime this year, the film will mark a pretty significant point in the careers of both. Clark is currently developing his next feature, Little Sister, for the RBC Emerging Storytellers Lab at IFP, and the ever-prolific Hollyman (The Color Wheel, Somebody Up There Likes Me) is busy adapting the Sundance (and NoBudge) approved short Social Butterfly into a feature with director Lauren Wolkenstein. NoBudge talked to both director and star about the fundraising and filming of Reindeer, a Virginia-set Christmas film about a holiday crazy real estate agent who returns home one December evening to find her seemingly idyllic husband killed by a home invader. They two be reunited on screen in Onur Tukel’s upcoming vampire comedy Summer of Blood, in which Clark cameos as a dead body.
One of the reasons I like this movie so much is, not that it’s necessarily on this massive scale, but most microbudget filmmakers wouldn’t necessarily think to make a film inspired by something as extravagant as “All That Heaven Allows.” Is it daunting to use such a lush influence as Douglas Sirk on a limited budget?
ZC: Well, what’s difficult about it isn’t necessarily the style of the film. The logistical problems with a bigger scale movie like this were more in the amount of people and locations. I think the biggest thing we did in terms of the production design was paint one of the bedrooms in the house, and the rest was just moving stuff. We bought some of the Christmas decorations, but a lot of that I actually already owned.
But that’s most of it. And that’s where most of the style comes from. Well, that and camera movements, which don’t cost anything.
That’s true, but at the same time as an audience member I really appreciated all of the time and attention to detail put into every framing and camera move, which is definitely something you don’t see a lot in low budget films.
ZC: I always go in with a full shot list. And also, Daryl [Pittman], the DP and one of the producers, bought a dana dolly, which is basically just skateboard wheels and pipe and it takes five minutes to set up without worrying about laying down track or anything, and you don’t need a dolly grip or anything additional to control the camera movements. I think we were on a traditional dolly less than five times.
You raised the majority of funds on Kickstarter, and I was curious about your experience with a film that’s as unique as this. Does that help while fundraising? I always get the sense that there's a lot of similar stuff on Kickstarter, so a project like this would jump out at me.
ZC: The only time it’s way easier to raise money on Kickstarter is when you have some kind of catchy social issue. The issue with this movie on Kickstarter is that there was no readymade, built in audience for it. There was that youth basketball movie that raised like a hundred grand a year or so ago, where they just tapped into the youth basketball market and they got a really high profile pro basketball coach to donate. There’s no group that’s like, “where’s our movie about a woman who has a really terrible Christmas to donate to?”
So there’s no one out there just scoping out like offbeat, eclectic projects to donate to. That’s sort of a bummer. But you were really successful with the campaign. You met your goal.
ZC: Yeah. The whole strategy in the campaign was just to be super genuine.
The thing that rubs me the wrong way about a lot of Kickstarter campaigns is that they act entitled, and their videos are just kind of cute and don’t seem to take it very seriously. My goal from the beginning was to just be really genuine and serious and honest, and be humble about it.
My goal from the beginning was to just be really genuine and serious and honest, and be humble about it. And in that process continually bothered every single person I’ve ever met in my entire life. People from high school that I haven’t had a conversation with in ten years, I was like, hey! I’m doing this thing! And some of them chipped in.
One of our executive producers actually just found us randomly and gave us a lot of money. He was living in the area and the “reward” was that you could come out to set and hang out with us. We’d see him like every two months. Super nice guy.
Did you raise enough to shoot it all at once?
ZC: We shot in spurts. In December 2011 we shot everything in Anna Margaret’s house and all the big Christmas exterior stuff. We shot pickups in August 2012 in Puerto Rico, which is the best, smartest decision to make the last days of a movie the five people who worked the most on that movie in Puerto Rico for three days for maybe forty-five seconds of footage.
Is it kind of difficult to keep it going for that long, both in a logistical and an acting standpoint?
ZC: From my point of view it helps a little bit. We shot Modern Love on weekends for six months. We shot Vacation! in basically two weeks, and then came back months later to do pickups. We could rewrite scenes and revisit scenes based on how they were working out in the edit. This let us do that on a smaller scale.
Anna Margaret, how did you become involved? Were you familiar with Zach’s work beforehand? I feel like this would be an odd script to just read blind.
AMH: A friend of mine showed me a cut of Vacation! a few years ago because it’s very rare to see a female ensemble in a film. I was in New York and we met at [Brooklyn theater] ReRun when Aaron Hillis was a curator there, and then finally some filmmaker friends of ours recommended me for this part and I auditioned.
There’s a few non-actors in pretty central roles in the film, and the thing that impressed me was that the film is so stylistic and tonally consistent, even in their performances. Most of the time, in smaller budget movies you cast non-actors for the sake of naturalism, so I’m curious how that worked here. How was it working alongside them?
AMH: I think the thing about working with non-actors is that they bring an authenticity, so on set you’re just going to respond to whoever that person is in front of you.
ZC: I like to mix the two. Both parties have to be on their toes a little bit more which brings a nice energy. I never tell anyone that. I actually tell people the exact opposite, to be as natural as possible. I never tell anyone to be stylized. The performances don’t need to be stylized because the movie is going to be stylized. With non-actors, if they’re trying too much, sometimes I’ll tell them to emote less and just say the words. The other reason is that they’re either friends of mine or someone that I met who I thought was interesting and might have fun with this. When you’re making a movie on this budget you need enthusiastic people who are just going to show up and have fun. You want everyone to want to be there.
Did you give the actors any filmic reference points?
ZC: Only Anna Margaret and Laura [Lemar-Goldsborough, the non-professional actor who played Fantasia]. For Anna Margaret it was All That Heaven Allows, and Scrooged, and Sin in the Suburbs. For Laura, I just kind of gave her Rudolph (as in the red-nosed reindeer) and Au Hasard Balthazar and told her to watch them.
Joe Swanberg has a role in this film [as one half of an overly friendly swinging neighbor couple], and it seems like both of you have really managed to tap into the sort of community going on in low budget films on the east coast. Was that support system easy to find?
ZC: Yeah, everyone’s really supportive. We’re all doing pretty much the same thing on some similar scale. So we’re all in it together. In Joe’s case in this movie, he was just the best guy for the part.
He really is, though!
ZC: The truth is, on this budget level, you do try and think of friends of yours who would be a good fit for parts because they’ll be enthusiastic. So we thought of Joe, and there was a conversation at one point about if it was too much of a “thing” to cast Joe.
Like an inside joke?
ZC: Not necessarily an inside joke but that thing that other movies do where they just cast people who are in other indie movies. Especially other indie directors. That’s kind of a strange trend recently. Yeah, but then we thought even if it was, fuck it. Joe would be better for this than anyone else. He was the man for the job.
AMH: Him in the snowflake sweater is just perfect.
Literally every second he’s on screen is just the goofiest thing ever. Anna Margaret, as an actor how did you find breaking into this scene?
AMH: I’d say there’s a very specific network of indie directors and actors and producers that I’ve really come to appreciate. I moved to Los Angeles for a year and, not to begrudge on Los Angeles, but there is just kind of an automatic support system here of people who are just constantly creating and once you work with someone, there’s definitely a lot of generosity between all of them. The other part of it is we all sort of exist in this ecosystem of the festival circuit, and we all kind of migrate together across the country, which does create that very specific sense of community. Which is really something that I take for granted as an actor, as the other option is to just wait for phone calls and emails and make audition tapes awkwardly in your kitchen.
White Reindeer is now touring festivals. For more info, official site is here. Trailer is below...