When she signed up to star in “Animals,” Kim Shaw knew she was stepping into the world of her co-star David Dastmalchian, who had written the film based in part of his personal experience. But she had no idea just how all-encompassing that was while filming in Chicago.
“I couldn’t walk ten feet with David without someone stopping him, knowing who he was,” says Shaw.
“Sometimes for good, sometimes for bad,” Dastmalchian says, as a wearied smile creeps across his face.
In the past two years, audiences around the world have come to associate Dastmalchian with the latter, given his pale complexion and deep, dark eyes that have made him an ideal villain for such films as “The Dark Knight” and “Prisoners.” But in the Windy City, people have a more nuanced view of the actor/writer, one that manifests itself into the very fabric of “Animals” as it details the plight of Bobbie and Jude, a pair of lovers who use their wits to pull off small cons to support their drug habit.
Having once grappled with such issues himself and living out of his car as the main characters do before getting on the right track, Dastmalchian infuses the film with the soul the roles he’s typically had to play have so often intentionally lacked, allowing both himself and Shaw to show all sides of the compelling Jude and Bobbie as they alternate between charming raconteurs and desperate addicts. The fluidity of such emotions is reflected in the work of first-time director Collin Schiffli, who captures both the pure beauty of the couple’s love for each other and the rawness of their diminishing care for themselves.
Not surprisingly, the unflinching drama earned Dastmalchian a Special Jury Recognition for Courage in Storytelling from SXSW and while in Austin, he, Schiffli and Shaw spoke about the evolution of the film, how personal details enriched it and how a change will do you good.
How did this start?
David Dastmalchian: I wrote this as a story first in 2004 and it was my first stab at a feature-length screenplay in 2006. I was excited about it at the time, then I moved into my acting career and continued writing in play form, so it was many years later, at the end of 2009, my manager read the script and liked it. Then I gave it to my friend Collin, who I had collaborated with on a number of things, to ask for help. He responded to the script, and he started helping me put together the film. A mentor of mine [“American Movie” filmmaker] Chris Smith, who was with one of the producers of the film, read the script and met with Collin and I, and he said, “Let me know what I can do to help, and I’ll help you guys make this movie.” Collin immediately had all this vision for this film, and he started putting it together. We worked for about almost three years, sitting down in my kitchen every day, or every other day, and plotting out how we were going to do this film.
Collin Schiffli: It was my first feature film and we’re always bouncing ideas around and in whatever capacity it was, I was going to be involved. But when it escalated to me being the director, I knew it was such a personal and horrible story that needed to be done correctly. It was like the perfect first film because you really had to show your chops to bring it to life.
For both the actors, this is such a departure from what you’ve been known for. Was that part of what made it exciting?
Kim Shaw: That, to me, was one of the main drives of it. A role like this doesn’t come along very often, especially for a young actress, and an unknown young actress at that. The story had so much depth and heart. I cried the whole way through the script. My agent had sent this to me on my birthday. I had an audition maybe a week later, and couldn’t stop thinking about it. I even started researching it before I knew that I had a callback – I just had this feeling the entire time about how I had to be a part of this film in any way possible. Luckily, it worked out in my favor. I met some of the most incredible people I’ve ever worked with and the experience was such a departure from something I usually do, but I always knew that I had it within me to share this girl’s story.
After playing such maniacal characters in recent years, David is allowed to be charming in rakish way in this.
DD: That’s very nice of you to say. My mom would so happy if only there wasn’t all the other things I’m doing in this film that she’s going to watch now. Jude is a character that I created, but there is a lot of my life and soul in that character, as there is, probably, in every character in the script.
Obviously, something that is this personal, trust is tantamount. You can’t take a step forward into a project like unless you just want to hand it over to somebody, which I didn’t want to do. Collin was brutally honest with me, which is where the trust is built from. From the beginning, he was one of the first people that would give me true critiques of my work on other things.
As we got closer and closer to making this film, and we were going to try to raise some funds to make the movie, the reality came about that l may not be able to play the role of Jude. I sat down with him, and I said, “I only want to play that role. I’ll stay on board as your screenwriter and as a producer, but I only want to play a role that you truly believe that I’m the right person for this part.”
That was tough because I didn’t want to let go of it, but we went through a lot of soul searching, and he came back to me very sincere, and he said, “It’s going to be you, and that’s how it’s going to work,” as did the producers on the film. So when I actually got to jumping in to playing this character, it was a dream for me then that became real.
KS: David is one of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet, and you wouldn’t know that from his repertoire of films, but it’s so refreshing for you to be able to show a major part of who you are in your script.
When you know this is based in part on David’s life, does that change the dynamic on set?
KS: I researched and talked to as many people as possible, but to have the person who has inspired these actual stories and people… David is Bobbie in a lot of ways.
DD: No one on our set had ever shot up, except for me. I was very nervous in the year leading up to [filming]. It was like I didn’t want to talk about it, then it was like, why not? It was great to be done with being secretive about it. So I said, “Okay, yes. This is stuff that I have been through.” We had drug school. We showed how all these things worked.
KS: We wanted everything to be as realistic as possible. As someone who hasn’t used narcotics before, I wanted to make sure for someone who has, people watching the film wouldn’t be taken out of the experience for that reason.
DD: My wife [Evelyn Leigh] did a hell of a job. She was the art director on the film, and she created fake drugs that we could cook, and we could get all the way up close to looking like it was actually going to be injectable. We all sat around a big table for a couple of hours. Our make-up artist [Amber Talarico] killed it. Put everything on there. It was magical.
This may be a compliment to your wife as well because one of the things I wanted to ask about was how much the story is informed by visual details that are never spoken about, but often fill out the couple’s lives, such as the knickknacks in their car. How were those chosen?
CS: I knew the movie wouldn’t work if it wasn’t 100% real in all aspects. The details of how to use the drugs, the world, and the car, shooting in Chicago and the different locations had to be as real as possible because it was such a good, grounded base to jump off from. Everything just falls into place because you don’t kid yourself after awhile. [looking at Collin and Kim] You guys are able to really bring all that out, bring out the subtleties of that world they’re inhabiting.
DD: Our production designer [Caity Birmingham] was a visionary, too. You’re trying to show this fantasy world and the car, there are parallels in the objects that are in both. She and Collin were able to meet in my kitchen again months before the film, so they had a really strong strategy.
KS: We were allowed to bring personal knickknacks to it as well.
DD: Kim brought a whole bunch of cool stuff. A bunch of stuff that we used as props were things that I had when I lived in my car. We went thrifting together.
I can’t leave without asking about the title. Why was the metaphor of animals compelling to you?
DD: When I lived in Chicago, I was living in my car and I would park it next to the Lincoln Park Zoo. That’s the thing I pulled from reality for the script. I spent a lot of time walking around the zoo. It’s a beautiful zoo, and these beautiful animals are living in these cages, not self-imposed cages the way we are, but I had a vision of people existing in a cube and their potential to be growing free. These beautiful creatures, which you hope the audience experiences Jude and Bobbi really sees that although they’re damaged and they’re going through some really horrible times, there’s beauty in there. And when Kim and I would audition together, we were almost like two little monkeys, touching each other’s hair. It started in our first session and it was so great. Collin always had us in these positions in the car where we were grooming creatures.
CS: You had it in the script. It was a special part of the script that it was so easy to just highlight it even more by actually getting to go to the zoo, and make that a constant metaphor. The title alone [intrigued me] – “Animals”? What is this? It’s so subtle, but there’s so many different ways you can look at it, and it all comes back to the same message and same theme.
There’s that great shot where you pan over the hospital bed and into a television with an animal program on. It becomes subconscious.
CS: We just discovered that.
DD: We almost didn’t have that in the film.
CS: It was a happy accident.
Are you happy with how it turned out?
CS: We’re beyond happy. I think we’re all still trying to figure out what it all means, and how it’s all going to play out. We just wanted to finish the film and make something to the best that we could. If I were to go back in time and tell myself as a kid that this is what my first movie would be, I would go, yes, perfect and if I get to keep making films, if people could look at my body of work, this movie feels like the signature jump-off point. That’s how I like to look at it.
KS: I thought, worst-case scenario, that if it doesn’t go anywhere, the experience of what we did in Chicago will last forever. It’s one of the most magical experiences I’ve ever had, and the fact that we’re here today premiering at SXSW is unreal.
DD: I’m very proud. Very proud. The film is much better than the screenplay. You see what Kim does with Bobbie. You see this amazing film. It’s surreal right now. I’m in a bit of a dream state. I’ll come back to Earth soon.
“Animals” opens on May 15th in Los Angeles at the NoHo 7, New York at the Village East, and Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center, among others. A full list of theaters and dates is here.