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American Animal: Consider yourself warned!
Programming a film like American Animal is a risk. But it is exactly the kind of risk a film festival should take. Consider yourself warned: American Animal is at times difficult to watch, set entirely inside a single Los Angeles apartment, and featuring a brilliant, but cringe inducing performance of a central character that never stops the mental and emotional torture of those around him. But when it is all over one is left with the exhilerating sense of having discovered the work of a major new talent in Actor/Director/Producer Matt D’Elia. If Matt is anything like the character he plays so convincingly in American Animal, he will self-destruct and we will never hear from him again, if he is not, (and he insists that he isn’t) then he should soon be famous.
I spoke with Matt about directing himself in such an intense role, about the illness that inspired American Animal, and the benefits of shooting a film in your loft apartment.
Tell me about American Animal, you are the actor, writer and director right?
Yes, that’s correct. I wrote the script a few years ago thinking that maybe one day, down the road when I’d already found a bit of success, I could just run off and make this weird little movie on my own. But as time went on, and other projects fell apart, this sort of just emerged as maybe the best one to do first. But I still didn’t really entertain the idea of making this crazy, crazy film as my directorial debut until I handed it to my producing partner Julian King, and he read it and said, ‘Why don’t we make this? And soon?’… The way he said it made it seem so obvious, and I didn’t know how to say no, so we did, we made it.
As far as me directing it, that was always a given, as it was a pretty odd little script and I was probably the only person on the planet who knew what it was. It’s a very idiosyncratic piece. But me being in it was a total afterthought. I couldn’t get any of the actors I initially wanted for the lead role of Jimmy, which is a very demanding and tricky role, and I didn’t want to just give it to some unknown, so I decided – with the support of my team – to just go for it and play him myself. But I’m happy I did. It sort of completes the specificity of the vision, and sees it through to the end.
The character you play in the film is difficult, I guess thats one way to put it. He is eccentric, maddeningly provocative to those around him, and one of those guys who just is so unpredictable that he keeps everyone around him on edge. Tell me about the inspiration for this character, and I am sure the first question you always get is, “Is that character you in real life”?
Jimmy is indeed very difficult! Almost like a child, really. When he doesn’t get his way, he throws a big wild man-child tantrum of sorts. But I think that’s interesting! He’s so desperate, you know? Because he’s very ill and doesn’t have much time on this earth, and he feels like the short amount of time that he does have is being stripped of him by his health and his friends’ decisions, which are totally out of his control, so the tantrum – because of that desperation – makes sense to me, and hopefully lets the viewer sympathize with the character just enough, even though he might be a bit off-putting and, as you say, difficult at times. I’ve heard that Jimmy isn’t likable. I suppose I understand the complaint, but I’m not sure how important that is. I think of my favorite movies and books, and more often than not, the protagonist is someone I don’t exactly like. But there’s a difference between not liking someone and not being able to engage in their story. I guess anti-heroes, in the classical sense, have always interested me a great deal. Engagement and conflict and tension and stakes and themes are much, much bigger priorities to me than making a protagonist likable. In fact, I’m never looking for likable people in a film. I’m looking for interesting people. But all this serious talk aside, I do hope people laugh at Jimmy! At heart, all he wants to do is entertain you. In my head, the movie is just a harmless, specific little comedy.
The inspiration for Jimmy – the crazy antics, the wild ideas, the sickness – actually came to me when I myself was very sick in my early twenties. It was an extremely hard time for me. I wanted to be out in the world, being me and making my movies, but I was totally denied that during this time, left more or less bedridden for a good part of 3 years. And when you’re bedridden at such a young age, with all that time on your hands, your mind wanders, and you end up thinking some really crazy stuff! Which is what led to the crazy character of Jimmy. It was that direct. Jimmy was conceived entirely during those days of being cooped up with a wandering mind.
And yes, I get that question all the time. “Are you just like that character?” Make no mistake I am nothing at all like this man! He is a complete creation. In fact, I’m much, much more like his best friend James, played by Brendan Fletcher in the film. I sometimes wish I was like Jimmy. But I’m really not at all.
You shot the entire film inside your really incredible loft apartment in downtown LA right? Why did you confine the story to that single location?
That’s a great question. A lot of people see containment as a sort of setback, and I can see how that’s true in some cases, but I think of it as a director’s dream. Especially if you’re an indie director. Think about it: What’s the one thing every independent film director dreams of but almost never has? Control. And so by confining the script to within the confines of one big loft, we were able to control everything,every little detail, in every single shot of the film. But if we were out running and gunning with not a lot of money like most indies are forced to do, we would have relinquished so much control to things that we have absolutely no power over. In our case, the confinement was a means of retaining as much control over the final product as possible.
And thanks for the compliments on my home! Although I must admit, it doesn’t usually have that funhouse look. Again, I’m not a crazy man, so I don’t live in a crazy man space. Our production designer, a great production designer named Arthur Martinot, made it look like that with not a whole lot of money and not nearly enough time. He was a huge asset. The movie simply wouldn’t have been the same without him.
What has been the reaction to the film so far on the festival circuit?
Surprisingly positive. Not that I expected a whole lot of negativity, but as you know, the movie has the potential to be a little divisive, and so I thought there would be a little more vitriol. And there is a tiny bit of vitriol, but I don’t know…I guess I expected more! Jimmy is a pretty provocative character, and you can’t really walk away from the film without some kind of strong opinion of him and the movie. But I think that divisiveness, that evocative nature of the movie, helps it a great deal on the festival circuit. What are festivals for, if not to provoke audiences into feeling, thinking? I’m just happy that festival programmers are liking AMERICAN ANIMAL enough that they want to program it in their festivals, and that they’re understanding the humor, and that audiences seem to be responding to the film as well. I’m not really sure what else a filmmaker could want. It’s been pretty great. Well beyond my expectations. I’m just thrilled with the response to the film so far.