A few days ago, just 16 years shy of when his feature debut “Trans” made its American premiere at Sundance, Julian Goldberger was listening to the film’s soundtrack. It wasn’t quite serendipity – the film’s recent release on iTunes and other online video providers through Sundance Artist Services after being long difficult to find had nudged him into thinking about putting out the soundtrack he had worked on with his brother Jonathan. But all it took was a few notes for Goldberger to be transported back to the Southwest Florida Juvenile Detention Center where he somehow coaxed the management to let him film there.
“This one particular song, we have the prison guards doing this count off and all the inmates coming out of their cells,” recalled Goldberger. “Hearing that again brought me right back to that weird location and having all these real inmates around us while we were shooting. It was so strange to be in there, but it was also really exhilarating and exciting.”
That rush is something Goldberger managed to translate unimpeded to the screen in “Trans” and a decade-and-a-half later, it still hasn’t been slowed down. The story of an incarcerated young man named Ryan Kazinsky (Ryan Daugherty) who takes advantage of a distracted guard during work detail to flee the coop into the backwoods of Fort Myers where he comes across fellow lost souls of all types, “Trans” deals with confinement not just physically but mentally as random encounters with strangers open up Ryan’s perspective. Yet there’s definitely a tangibility to Goldberger’s film where you can feel the balminess as Ryan trudges through swampland, ease into casual conversations he has with the locals and hear the constant din of crickets at night in the marsh and of fluorescent bulbs when he makes his way into the city.
It’s one of those debuts that makes you take notice and in fact, it was only because so many did and spoke up for it that the film saw a release three years after its debut at the Toronto Film Festival. Since then, Goldberger pursued his interest in ethnography more explicitly with “The Eulipion Chronicles,” which took audiences through North America’s largest truck stop in Wyoming and a tour of Southeast Asia, in 2003, followed by the melancholy Paul Giamatti drama “The Hawk is Dying” in 2007. After further adventures in Asia while teaching at NYU’s Singapore-based Graduate Film Program yielded a forthcoming street photography book “Having Here or Take Away,” Goldberger is planning to go back behind a movie camera soon, but before he does, he took the time to talk about “Trans” in honor of its rerelease, building the film around the unique characters he met in the region and the great impact that music had on the production.
Yeah, I was. I went through AFI, and I had spent some years after in LA, trying to get things going, but as often is the case with your first feature, you really have to just go out and do it on your own. I knew I just had to make a personal statement about who I was as a filmmaker, so the logical place to do that was back in my hometown. There was a lot of stuff for me to mine there just schematically, and on a practical level, it would be a lot easier to make a film there as far as local support and resources, so I could shoot it the way I wanted to with a scaled down, super small crew. I brought in a lot of my friends from film school to come work on it, and we hired non-professional actors that were cast from my old high school, where I would just talk to kids and do a bit of research as well.
There’s also a lot of boot camps in Florida for troubled teens, and that gave me access to some other people we brought in to the production that were cast in those roles. We were lucky to be able to shoot in some of those locations. Looking back on it, it was extraordinary that the Southwest Florida Juvenile Detention Center allowed us to shoot there. I think that they thought we were making a documentary of some sort, so it was incredible.
Since this was your hometown, did you know the places you wanted to shoot or was this as much a process of discovery for you as it is the main character?
It was a combination of those things. I know that area so well from growing up there that I had my own personal experience to bring to the table, but at the same time, I was very open to discover different facets to Southwest Florida on a cultural level and social level. The way we designed the shoot, we were relatively free to explore. Not in every instance — there’s a place called Babcock Ranch, where we had to have location agreements, but mainly in that area, they just don’t have much experience as far as big or even small productions. This was the late ‘90s, so everybody was open to it, and excited. “Oh, you’re making a movie? That’s great. How can we help.” People didn’t get too hung up on location agreements, so that really enabled us to shoot in a spontaneous way, and to respond to different things that came up as we would go out into the night.
One of the most memorable scenes in the film is the interaction between Ryan, the lead character, and some of the local guys hanging out at a country store. That was just chance. We were out there scouting, just talking to people out there, and realized this was great and that these people that were there would be fantastic to integrate into the film. They were game, so we went back that night and I was going to use improvisation for the most part, but I still had a real good sense of what I needed from the scene, so there was a bit of a blueprint, but mostly it was just letting these guys be themselves and respond to Ryan as this outsider that’s fallen into their world.
You’ve got at least a couple other great moments like that with unexpected comic beats. There’s an old woman Ryan meets in a supermarket who rambles on to herself, saying “The corn draw is here!” and then a bus station attendant who goes on about a meat thermometer. Were those improvisations or scripted?
That’s so funny. I forgot about the meat thermometer. The woman in the grocery store was just a friend of one of the girls that was working on the shoot, a high school student who was just thrilled to be involved and was helping out as a production assistant. She knew the spirit in which we were making this movie, and I wasn’t looking for traditional actors. I was looking for interesting people that brought something to the table and this woman was just great. A lot of that dialogue was hers and I just embraced that. Instead of giving her lines, I just let her respond to Ryan and have them have real, authentic interaction. That was fun. I actually encouraged a little bit more of the offbeat stuff.
In the case of the bus station [attendant], he was the only actor I think I cast. He was a local guy, and his audition tape was from some other movie that wasn’t even a B movie, it was a completely unreleased C movie and in it, there was a scene that was just so ridiculous, I loved it. The guy’s name is Edge [Edgerton] and I actually talked to him about stealing some of the lines from that film and reworking them a little bit so they were even more absurd. That’s how we landed on the meat thermometer stuff and we tweaked it a bit to fit his character. He had fun with it. That guy was just awesome and we were just trying to have a lot of fun and create these memorable characters.
When the film played at Sundance, there’s a story about how Richard Linklater was the one who suggested to Amy Taubin that she watch it, which is how she reviewed it for the Village Voice. Was he actually an influence, given the focus on characters and its loose structure like “Slacker”?
Yeah. “Slacker” was a really big movie for me and, no doubt about it, the way in which he made it was very inspirational. I was definitely aware of it and also Jim Jarmusch certainly inspired me to get into films [with] “Stranger Than Paradise” and “Down by Law.” Those films really just set me off and made me want to make film. There’s something about them — their sensibility and style that’s handmade and homegrown — that I knew I had to do with “Trans,” and just make it as authentic to that place of Southwest Florida.
I also wanted to have fun with it. I didn’t want it to be too heavy in terms of portraying this kid that had a bad run and was stuck in juvie. It’s certainly there in Ryan’s performance, but the tone came from a spoken word piece “Why I Follow the Tigers” from Rod McKuen that transformed me. It clarified things in a way that allowed me to feel confident moving forward. It was what I was trying to achieve, so I wanted to stay in tune with that.
Yeah, there was a specific mix tape that a friend of mine gave me that just recalibrated my way of thinking about music and collage. It was just an oddball sound collage that egged me on into more mysterious places in terms of film language. There was an aggressiveness to it that made me really want to keep pushing things. When we were shooting some of the kids — the inmates while they were in juvie — part of their daily routine was doing work detail out on the highway, picking up trash. For that sequence, I put headphones on my cinematographer and while he shot them, he couldn’t hear anything other than the music, so he was responding to the music with his camerawork. The results were really interesting.
I’m a big fan of Brian Eno’s oblique strategy, which is like a deck of cards that you pull and [see what’s] inspired by each hand. With “Trans,” that’s absolutely what we were trying to achieve. That method was exciting and [the film] became more of an expedition as opposed to execution.
There’s this idea of motion in the film that you set right upfront with the Merry Go Round that’s the focus of the opening credits, and throughout the film, there are moments where it slows down or speeds up. Was that idea of movement one of touchstones for the film?
Certainly, there are those moments where you are literally trapped [in juvenile detention], and then with the merry go round, it’s just that inertia and that’s the danger of a place like Fort Myers. There’s just that kind of quicksand quality, so I really wanted to play with motion and the physicality of this character trying to connect with something that was fuzzy in his mind, yet there was a goal for him. He wanted to reconnect with the wild in some way and thematically, that’s something I have been exploring in all of my work — this idea of characters that are trying to reconnect with the wild, and in some cases, the wild comes to them. I always had that in mind and wanted to put it out there, but without it being too deliberate — that feeling of growing up in a place like that, and a really intense desire to escape. In Ryan’s case, a lot of that escape occurs in his imagination and the fantasy world. That was part of the design of the film, that kind of impressionistic perspective.
Did making this film shape your ideas about what you wanted to do as a filmmaker?
At the time I wasn’t sure. I knew it had to be personal and have some sort of power, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to sustain my interest. Making films takes too much time and it’s such an intense undertaking. But only in the last couple years, when I’ve been forced to write artist statements, I’ve [realized] thematically, all my stuff somehow connects to this. Maybe some of it is just subconscious. I think a lot of it too was growing up reading a lot of Jack London books.
Are you actually working on a new film now?
Yeah, but as I’m sure you can tell, I take my time. I’ve only made two movies in 17 years, so it just has to feel right. There’s definitely a new film that is in the works right now. I finished the script and I guess it’s like every decade I have to write something to reflect where I’m at. There’s another film I’m hoping to make like I made “Trans” [where I] have a little bit more freedom in terms of how the film evolves within production. That’s a luxury. I just have to keep the budget low enough and design the film in a way that’s doable so I don’t have to deal with the machinery of a bigger production. “The Hawk is Dying” was made in a much more traditional mode. Our cast was amazing and we had a big crew, but it was low budget and we had to make our days. That’s not to say that I don’t want to make bigger films, but it’s just this [next] project, I have to go back to what I started with “Trans” in terms of approach and process. That’s what feels right to me, and I have to trust that.