Interview: Cooper Raiff on Getting at Grace in “Shithouse”

To think that Cooper Raiff is exactly like the guy he plays on screen in his directorial debut “Shithouse” would be a mistake, though the similarities are the ones you would hope he would have. Sensitive and thoughtful like his on-screen alter ego Alex, who is having trouble being away from home in his first year of college, Raiff was less ambivalent about just up and quitting in his sophomore year, deciding he would be better served by seeing if he could make a movie rather than learning to do so. It’s a choice you’re happy Raiff made off-screen and Alex doesn’t make on it when it leads the freshman to spend an evening with his dorm RA Maggie (Dylan Gelula), hashing out their shared feelings of isolation for entirely different reasons as they saunter around the university grounds.

You expect a romance to commence, but Raiff resists the obvious love story as the film’s title – an allusion to a notorious party on campus – might suggest in favor of something unusually enchanting as the two start completing each other’s thoughts at the time when the ideas they have about themselves and what the future might hold seem fragmentary and constantly shifting. Fittingly, “Shithouse” initially existed as such a notion in search of shape, filmed first as a mini-feature with friends that the writer/director posted to YouTube and boldly tweeted Jay Duplass with a link, leading to a lunch with the filmmaker who surely saw a bit of himself in the scrappy introspective college kid. Under Duplass’ watchful eye as an advisor, “Shithouse” may unfold as a story of someone figuring things out, but Raiff reveals himself to have a command over a unique tone and rhythm with a perfect foil in Gelula as a co-star that makes you want to follow him wherever he goes.

Despite the cancellation of SXSW this year as a result of the coronavirus, the convened jury still bestowed its top prize for Best Narrative Feature to the film, as did the Florida Film Fest, and now arriving in drive-ins, virtual cinemas and on demand via IFC Films, Raiff spoke about the unconventional path “Shithouse” took the screen, the women in his life that brought the best out of it, and putting something he invested so deeply in out into the world.

After making the “Shithouse” short, did you have an idea of what a feature could look like?

Yeah, the short movie that I call short was actually 55 minutes, so it really was long and it was more of a two-parter, so to make it into the feature, I was leaning into Alex’s story more and how he was going at it freshman year and then the second act is their walk and talk and then the third act is the breaking up and trying to figure out how to be together, and in my head, it was pretty clear. I was never forcing or stretching things. Actually, the first rough draft of the feature was 160 pages, so if anything, it was just trying to constantly peel things back. And my girlfriend, who has no credit on the movie, I was living with her while I was writing this script and the movie’s about our relationship, so she was constantly reading drafts and saying, “Hey, you better put this thing in there, buster,” so she was the biggest thing [helping] in terms of getting both perspectives right.

What sold you on Dylan Gelula as a co-star?

Dylan has amazing instincts and she’s such a specific person who sees things one way and that was always super welcome because I knew that there was going to be a learning curve for me doing everything. She was just a really great leader on set and definitely the most experienced of anybody on the set. She’s a perfect Maggie and what I had written on the page, she’s kind of that, but even more so, so it was always very scary and exciting what she was bringing to that character. And it was really nice that I had done it before — the original short film was with non-actors, so that was really challenging, and when it got time to do it with an actual actress who was taking it super seriously, it made things feel so alive. It never felt overwhelming and the things that I had written and seen, it seemed like all of a sudden, it was clear. It wasn’t like she brought something that was like, “Oh my God, now I need to adapt.” It was like, “No, we’re going in the right direction the whole time.”

Did you create a support system on set to tell you when you got a good take or did you know when a scene was right while you were in the middle of it?

Yeah, I think I always knew what was right, but I think everyone, from the sound guy to the DP to even the lighting guys, knew on set that I’m a 22-year-old kid, so they could always speak up and be like, “Hey, I don’t think this works or this would work better or hey, let’s do one more take.” I don’t know if I would call it a support system, but it was a safe space to say what’s on your mind, especially my DP Rachel Klein. She was the one watching every scene, and when I’m in a scene, I could go over to the monitor and rewatch it, but sometimes it was easier not to, so I’d say to Rachel, “We got it, right?” And she’d say, “Yeah, you got it.”

One of the things that was so striking to me was how you might’ve developed a camera style because you trusted those scenes to play out in long takes.

That was just trusting Rachel entirely. She’s just amazing and I was always really curious about how she wanted to film things and where she wanted to set the camera up. Maybe it’s because I don’t feel very strongly about that whereas I think a lot of directors really care, but I always thought she was right. Like the long sex scene, for example, Rachel’s a 30-year-old woman and that perspective was really interesting to me of what do you want to see in the sex scene and what’s inappropriate or what’s the right amount of “I need to see this,” so I just let her make those decisions. I knew what was happening in the scene and what I wanted to come from the characters on screen, so in terms of how we went about filming that, I always left that up to Rachel.

The silences are so unnerving in this film – what was it figuring out the rhythm of this?

I really care about realism, so I never thought about the quiet moments, but there are some moments where people wanted more quiet, like those argument scenes, I always got the note, “They’re yelling a lot,” and I always took the time to get the scene right and say what I wanted to say in the scene and make sure that I can cut it down as much as I can, but it still has to be realistic and very true to 19-year-olds talking in a room. That’s tricky, but really easy actually because I know exactly how they would talk to each other. It’s just committing to the fact that this scene is going to be longer than any other scene at this point in a movie. That scene after they have the failed sex attempt, so many people are like, “You have to make this shorter. It’s so long.” But if you look at that scene as having so many different beats to move the story along, that’s how I was always looking at it, and it has so many different things that lead to their night together and their coming together that I needed all of it. In order to be realistic, it needed to be stretched out and have those silences.

Was there a particularly challenging day of filming? You’ve got a lot of parties in the film.

Every day was really tough, honestly. The other day I was joking that all the fun scenes are the least fun to film. With lots of extras, it’s always hard, especially because there are different places where you can go to find extras, but they were all just my friends so they were all super loud and they were all friends with each other, so they would never shut up. [laughs] There’s a lot of times where they’d be pretending to talk, but they’re not obviously talking [because it would ruin the audio] and I think they constantly forgot that, so it was definitely challenging, but I was glad they were my friends so I could just look at them and tell them, “Hey, shut up. Stop talking.” That was nice.

What’s it like to have this under your belt?

It’s been so nice, rewarding and so emotionally fulfilling. I didn’t realize how much it would mean to me. I think I would’ve been okay if nobody would’ve seen this movie, but people seeing it and liking it and connecting with it means so much to me and it’s been overwhelmingly awesome. At the same time, I didn’t expect any of that, so to win an award or even get into a film festival, all of a sudden, there’s a bunch of critical eyes that I wasn’t ready for because I didn’t think of the movie getting to that place, so now that the film is in that place, I feel very protective too. I feel this urge to be like, “Don’t look at this movie like this. Look at this movie like it’s so amazing that it happened to be good and it happened to be watchable” because the fact that it worked in any sense is everything to me. I think a lot of people watching it may be like, “Alright, let’s see how good this really is,” trying to find holes — and there’s a lot of holes because it’s a small movie from a first-time filmmaker — so it’s scary, but it’s mostly amazing.

“Shithouse” will open in select theaters and on demand on October 16th.

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