Kate Lyn Sheil and Anton Yelchin in "Kiss Kiss Fingerbang"

When Gillian Horvat was a clerk in the hallowed halls of the third floor rental section of Kim’s Video in New York, earning money like much of the staff to finance her dreams of being a filmmaker, she received the type of education you can’t get in film school.

“We used to put on ‘Sweet Movie,’ and there’s that scene that’s just cutting to Carole Laure screaming her lungs out,” Horvat recalls of playing Dusan Makavejev’s cult favorite in the background. “Everybody in the store would just stop what they were doing and just gravitate back to the monitor to just watch what was going on. That’s the kind of movie that you want to make.”

Simply based on its provocative title, one would suspect Horvat has done just that with “Kiss Kiss Fingerbang,” which premiered this week at SXSW, but that suspicion is quickly confirmed by the mordantly funny short about a young woman (Kate Lyn Sheil) whose weakness for a specific sexual act is taken advantage of by someone she’s just met (Anton Yelchin) in ways that are even more perverse than anything that could happen in a bedroom. Although it isn’t surprising to see the name of “Heathers” screenwriter Daniel Waters in the credits as a producer, his black humor and barbed insights on male-female relations clearly an influence, Horvat displays her own distinctive sensibilities with both a madcap energy and knack for physical comedy that comingle to become a cartoonish glee with which to illuminate some particularly dark corners of human relationships.

After putting together a resume of impeccable film geek credentials – archivist for Samuel Fuller and a producer of his biodoc “A Fuller Life,” been there; AFI Fest programmer, doing that – Horvat is able to put into practice all that she’s learned along the way, as well as an impressive set of collaborators that includes not just Sheil and Yelchin, who get a rare opportunity to show their comedic chops, but Buck Henry, who relishes a small role as a passionate cat owner, and the film’s composer Phil Beaudreau, who plays an unexpectedly major role in the lives of “Kiss Kiss Fingerbang”‘s main characters. On the eve of the film’s debut at SXSW, Horvat spoke about the very real place such a crazy conceit came from and having a dedicated cast and crew that would go to that place with her.

How did this film come about?

I got the idea for the film when I realized that when you think you’re falling in love you find yourself justifying all sorts of behavior that you never thought you’d find yourself doing. I think we’ve all been there, on both sides, and have seen how love is used to rationalize manipulative behavior. Anton’s character’s actions are actually present in every romantic relationship. The film just takes them to a grotesque level to point out the absurdity of what we say and do to one another to gratify our desires. In fact, I see myself equally in both characters and I think a lot of people do to, though they might not want to admit it. We do bad things when we think we can get away with it, and we get bad things done to us when our idealized vision of our partner obscures reality. Because we all want to get off and fall in love.

Had you been wanting to make a short for a while? I noticed you made a couple before producing “A Fuller Life,” which must have been a full time occupation.

I’ve been doing a lot of screenplays for myself, but they were just things that were impossible to do. I wrote this love letter to Jean Claude Van Damme movies in the style of “WR: Mysteries of the Organism” and nobody was going to run out and give $4 million to a first-time director to go do that with Scott Adkins. But I had people reading it and really enjoying it, so I wanted to do a short to show I’m not just a documentary producer. I’m not just a screenwriter. I can do it from start to finish: writing, directing, producing.

How did Daniel Waters get involved as a producer?

Daniel’s my best friend and mentor, and he’s just wonderful. I involve him in everything, whether he likes it or not. He helped us get nearly all the locations in the short. Kate’s apartment is his apartment. So that’s his couch [in the film].

The couch actually seems crucial – it’s “U”-shaped, so in a scene when he throws her off of him during their initial encounter, she has somewhere to land, which could only happen with that kind of couch.

Yeah, it’s good that I was really good friends with both of the actors because I was really hands-on about how I wanted that scene to come out physically. I wanted Kate to fly off him in a really specific way, like a cricket, a very Jackie Chan “Project A”-kind of thing, so I straddled Anton, got on top of him, and just flung myself as far back as I could off the couch.

Kate’s almost never able to do comedy, which I think might be the secret weapon of this movie. Was that exciting for you?

I love Kate so much. I’ve known her for ten years. We worked at Kim’s Video in New York together. She started off as our favorite customer, and then she started working with us. We went out for a drink. And she [asked me], “What are you doing?” And I’m like, “I’m writing a lot. I really would like to direct something now.” And she’s like, “Why don’t you?” And I was like, “Nobody’s going to do all the graphic, crazy stuff that I want to do.” I told her about it, and she said she’d do it. If she hadn’t, it never would have happened. It was really finding an actress who will do that with you, go to that place with you and understands where you’re coming from – it’s not an exploitative thing; it’s an expressive thing, and is really meaningful.

Was it difficult to walk that line in conveying it onscreen?

It is. I’m sure it’s going to be really polarizing, and already, it has been. You have people say they found it disgusting and hard to watch, which made Anton really happy. I think he really loved hearing that and he warned me at the beginning, “You know, you’re going to get a lot of blowback about this.” But the actors really wanted to do it and because they were so confident and because they understood, I didn’t feel like I was asking them to do something that was unconscionable. We were all really passionate. We all understood where the story came from about what you do when you think that you’re in love and the things that you are surprised that you will do, and everybody understood what it was like to be in a vulnerable place like that.

One of the cool things in the movie is the music, which was all composed by Phil Beaudreau, who is frequently referenced to the point where I wondered, “Who is this guy? He seems like he must’ve been really famous in the 80s.” How did he get such a prominent role?

That was a thing where I was talking with one of the other producers, Riel. In the script, it was all Michael McDonald songs. He was like, “You’re never going to get the rights for this. What are you going to do?” So he came up with [the idea of] just making up a fake artist, but then the problem was where were we going to get the songs? I had heard this song on KCRW once, the most amazing, beautiful ’80s song, [which] we [ultimately] used in the montage sequence, so I reached out to the guy who did it – Phil Beaudreau – and he said he’d have coffee with me. I told him, “I want to make up this character and he’s going to be based on you, and he’s going to be the Michael McDonald that never was. Would you do a couple songs for us? They’ll be diegetically part of the film, and they’ll be really important to the plot.” He was totally on board with it. He wrote these incredible songs for us like the song that they play in the couch scene and the credits song. And he let us shoot the album cover with him.

Did he actually have a vinyl album or did you have to make it?

Our art director Dayna Smith took the stuff from the photo shoot, and they photoshopped it and just pasted it on a vinyl album. Even though you never really see the back of [the album cover], we made a back, too. I came up with all these track listings on his album, which is called “Kiss Kiss,” based on movies that really informed the short [such as] “Pretty Poison,” “To Die For,” “Splendor in the Grass,” “Bad Timing,” “That Obscure Object of Desire.” They all also seemed like they could be rock tracks. I’d buy it.

There’s also a wild scene involving some of what’s alluded to in the title that takes place at an ATM. Did you actually shoot it in a public place?

That was so difficult. Our art director is actually a legal secretary, but she’s one of most creative people you’ll meet – she’s the kind of person you go over to her house and she’s just working on art projects because she wants to. So clearly, she had to do this. We built a fake ATM prop, which looked like an ATM from the outside and we just put that in that little tunnel. So all the wide shots are of this wooden box, then all the closeups are of a real ATM inside the bar at the Public House [in Los Feliz]. Shooting all the closeups of the ATM was all very funny because it’s really slapsticky, but shooting in the tunnel, which is where he really changes…

Yeah, the switch is flipped in his personality.

That was one of the harder scenes to shoot from an emotional place because I felt bad making Anton go to this place. I got emotional. I was like, what kind of person am I to try and make this really sweet, nice guy do this? But [I thought], this is just for tonight. Then everyone can go back and we’ll have something really great and he’ll be okay. But it was hard. It’s hard to do that to a friend of yours.

Did you actually get to shoot in sequence more or less?

No. That was interesting. We did all the fingerbanging scenes first, and then we did the couch scene last, which I think was better because they knew each other more and that actually has to be more intimate than the physical comedy. But Anton is a real professional and he wants to get into it emotionally and mentally. He’s not just walking through it even though it’s just a short or just for a friend. He takes it seriously, and he and I had discussions about that character. He definitely thought that character was a lot worse than I did. I was like, “He’s just a douchebag. He doesn’t know any better. He’s an emotional manipulator, but he doesn’t think that he’s really doing anything that wrong.” And he’s like, “No. He’s awful.”

The film starts out in a veterinary clinic. Was that actually a location you had in the script?

Yeah, and it makes it feel like it had way more of a budget than it did. This is a no-budget short. Daniel got us that location [since] his friend that runs that vet clinic, and they let us shoot there for free. And that’s my cat.

So it was probably well-behaved.

Yeah, she was… until we found out that Anton is allergic to cats and he didn’t tell us. But she’s really docile. She didn’t move the whole time. We just put her on a table and she just stayed there. The sound guy went up to us, and was like, “I’ve worked with animal talent before, but I’ve never worked with an animal like this. This is amazing. She’s just so good.” And, yeah, she’s a really good girl. Her name is Kumite. She’s named after the fight to the death in “Bloodsport.”

Are you happy with how it came out?

I’m overwhelmed. Really, this is what happens when you work with people who are way more experienced and at the top of their game than you are. I had an amazing DP [Olivia Kuan]. She knew that I wanted a look that was somewhere between “After Hours” and “To Die For,” and we couldn’t have it [exactly] because while it is a dark comedy, but it can’t really feel like one because that’s not how it feels to these characters. Also, the actors were so experienced and intuitive that we could just get everything done so fast, and it’s thanks to all of them it turned out better than I could have dreamed of.

So is all this leading to a kung fu movie?

Oh, I’d love to direct this martial arts movie. It’s like a “Blazing Saddles” kind of comedy within the trappings of a Cannon movie from the ’80s about how Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy shows up in these action movies. It’s very over the top and crazy and political and fun, but it’s hard to find an actor who can do that – comedy, a Belgian accent, dance and be a great martial artist. I took ballet in high school, and that was how I got into Jean Claude Van Damme because he has a balletic agility and flexibility that’s just incredible. He could do anything.

How did you actually get bit by the film bug?

I did theater more when I was younger in high school. I did a lot of acting and playwriting, but I felt like there was never as much control as I wanted. With theater, you let the actors loose on stage and they’re going to do what they’re going to do. That’s where the language of film is all powerful. You really take everything the actors give you. They’re essential, but the director can actually give as much as they do by using space and light to create a little language and tell a story just like [the actors] use their bodies and their voices.

When I was acting, I also really didn’t like the politics of it; I felt like there was no meritocracy.  Now that I’m older, I realize there may not be one in film, but I was under the illusion that there was and if you couldn’t make a good film, you wouldn’t be able to make one, so I switched into filmmaking, and I’m glad that I did. I still think that theater is really exciting. There’s nothing that compares to the aliveness of it, and the sensation of being in the presence of a real person. But film is really rewarding on an expressive level. There’s so much more you can do. I mean, one shot, it’s “The Abyss.” The next shot, “Fantastic Voyage.” You can do anything. Movies are amazing. Better than real life.

“Kiss Kiss Fingerbang” will play at SXSW twice more as part of the Midnight Shorts Competition program on March 16th at the Alamo Lamar A at 8:45 pm and March 19th at the Alamo Ritz at 10:30 pm.