By Ethan Millspaugh // Ricky D’Ambrose’s dark, quiet film Pilgrims (NB premiere), which showed at Rooftop Films in May, is a compelling and well-executed literary short from a compelling and well-spoken literary man. In Pilgrims, a dying young man living in a city afflicted by a series of increasingly violent protests is visited in his apartment by a refugee, a political radical, and a priest. The short is third project for which D’Ambrose has served as Writer, Director, Cinematographer, and Editor in the past six years along with his 2011 short film The Stranger and 2007 feature University People, of which Pilgrims is an amended version. (He also served as a Producer on Pilgrims and The Stranger and Sound Mixer/Editor on Pilgrims.) D'Ambrose is a Columbia University graduate and has also written articles for The Brooklyn Rail, MUBI Notebook, n+1, Fipresci, The New Inquiry and Slant. D’Ambrose is currently in pre-production for a feature-length film he is writing called The Millenials and continues to write for various literary publications such as London’s The White Review. NoBudge talked to D’Ambrose about filmmaking, Pilgrims, and being academic...
NB: One of the things I love about Pilgrims is how artistically and deliberately the camera is held, creating a very poignant and insightful socio-political commentary (with a kind of psychological warfare seemingly being waged within both the city and the main character). How did you first get into filmmaking? What or who inspired you?
RD: My father gave me his VHS camera—a large, clunky Hitachi model with a motorized zoom and black-and-white viewfinder—when I was nine or ten. Our family's little library of home movies, all recorded on videocassette, made me envious of the moviemaker: At some point, I wanted to be the one to use the camera. Soon, I was writing and directing short films, using my very patient family as actors, and editing in-camera before making a feature (a re-make, short by nearly an hour, of Kubrick's The Shining) when I was thirteen. Kubrick was an early influence, but I also came across Bergman and Tarkovsky in high school, and filmmakers like Akerman and Bresson were important to me a little later on, when I was an undergraduate.
NB: Pilgrims has such a unique yet compelling tone and perspective – calm yet cold and austere. What was your inspiration for this film in particular?
RD: The garish floral wallpaper in one of the hallways of my apartment, I think. And a loud, hammering sound—heating pipes, for instance—that appear with the opening shot of the hallway. Pilgrims became a solution to the finicky problem of finding a way to use these two elements. It's also an amended version of a much longer film I made in 2007, called University People, but the voiceover narration and the use of the street protests and riots are new.
NB: It’s interesting that you mention the narration because, in Pilgrims, voiceover and intertitles are a very prominent part of the film’s structure. What inspired those two choices in particular?
RD: I didn't think to include on-screen journal entries until late in the shoot, although the voiceover is in the early drafts, mainly as a way to restrict the film's point of view. The scenes with the three visitors—the young woman who's off to Germany, the protestor, and the priest—were originally longer and shot as monologues, but I liked the idea of the main character interrupting these things with his steady, flat narration. The sound of his voice was a comic counterpoint, I think, to everything else we see and hear in the apartment. Another change from the early script: the character's illness was illustrated differently, in an early-morning sequence with lots of coughing, wheezing, and vomiting. The increasingly illegible handwritten journal entries became a way to replace this entirely.
NB: I see that you write for a lot of film and literary publications, and you attended Columbia University. What role does academia, literature, and scholarship play in your style of filmmaking, if any?
RD: Very little. The dilemma is deciding what to write and when, or how to direct my attention and for how long. I'd like to write regularly, not only about other people's films but about any number of the other things that interest me, but I simply don't have the same talent for turning out copy—repeatedly, and on very short deadlines—as some of the critics I admire do. My academic background has very little bearing on what I write, whether scripts or essays or reviews, although I'm sure I'd be hard pressed to find very many critics and filmmakers who believe that the two activities—making films and writing about them—are ultimately incompatible.
NB: Interesting. So, now that you’re done writing, directing, shooting, and editing Pilgrims, what projects are you working on? What's next for Ricky D’Ambrose?
RD: I've just finished the third draft for a feature I'd like to make at some point next year, called The Millennials. It's about an aborted search for a character who disappears, and this version is set mainly in cafes and subway stations. I'm also in the middle of writing something on nostalgia for The White Review, which is a London-based journal.
Pilgrims is available now on NoBudge here. Teaser is below...