Whenever Kate Lyn Sheil is around, Eugene Kotlyarenko has a habit of making something.
“Someone asked me to make a music video and she was in town for a day, so I was like, “Oh, want to shoot something really quickly?” the writer/director recalls of the start of his working relationship with the “House of Cards” and “Sun Don’t Shine” star. “We made this music video on a cellphone, [where] she picked me up at the airport in the video, then we go back to her house and dance and hang out. Then I slip a roofie in her drink, she passes out and I… you know. Then my girlfriend comes over and we make out on top of her limp body. I edited it really quick and sent it to the label and was like, “Hey, look at this.” And they’re like, “What the fuck is this?” I was like, “This is a cool music video. You said, ‘I could do whatever I want.’” They’re like, “We can’t release this.” I was like, “All right. Whatever. Fuck it.” But I had worked with Kate, and that made me excited to say, “Oh, we can actually make a movie maybe, together.”
Eventually, Kotlyarenko would make two, the first being his experimental 2010 narrative-documentary hybrid “Skydiver,” in which the filmmaker solicited responses from his real-life friends and family, including Sheil, on his romantic troubles at the time to tell the story of a man recovering from a breakup. (He’d do so without telling most of them they’d end in a movie.) The second, “A Wonderful Cloud,” making its premiere at the SXSW Film Festival this week, is no less audacious yet considerably lighter at heart, again finding Kotlyarenko post-breakup, but after already moving on from the relationship, threatened to be potentially pulled back in when his ex (Sheil) comes to Los Angeles to dissolve the fashion business they started together.
Told over the course of one wild July 4th weekend in the city, “A Wonderful Cloud” sees Kotlyarenko and Sheil encounter shady backroom psychics, mustache madness parties and effete Angelenos before signing their (professional) divorce papers. But this isn’t some meandering travelogue, instead infused with a sense of purpose by Kotlyarenko’s keen introspection of a relationship that’s moment may have passed. While the filmmaker says he was reluctant to make an film involving improvisation, he takes to it naturally, both with the force of personality he brings to his onscreen alter-ego also named Eugene and his strong sense for outrageous comic characters and scenarios, involving everything from a lover who takes fecal revenge when wronged, a knife-fetishizing neighbor named Vish (Vishwam Velandy), and a game of truth or dare that’s recorded for the world to hear on his radio show.
The film feels alive, likely as much due to the way it was created as the unique sensibilities of its creator, not to mention a rare and precious comic turn from Sheil, and shortly after the film’s debut in Austin, Kotlyarenko spoke of the film’s influences, its brilliant opening title sequence, and the benefits and drawbacks of an eight-day shoot, planned just a month before it commenced.
How the heck did this thing come about?
Kate visited L.A. again a month later [after the music video] and I was telling her how I was having a struggle writing a script that I had been working on. It is really hard if you’re precise and you want to make something that reads well on the page and will be a good movie, so she said, “Why don’t we make an improv movie?” Then I said, “No, that’s whack. Improv movies suck. They just don’t turn out right.” Then we started talking about why they don’t turn out right and then we said, “Well, I guess if you’re a cool and smart person and you put cool people in the movie, they’re interesting, maybe your improv movie could be good.”
John Cassavetes is a very dynamic person. He’s really insane, egomaniacal and a manipulative person who had a vision of life that wasn’t boring, so his movies turned out interesting. Mike Leigh has a very specific sensibility and he’s a critic of humanity in a very special way, so his movies are not boring. They’re insightful, so just to remember those filmmakers, as opposed to a lot of the filmmakers who are making more improvisatory-style movies now, galvanized me to become excited about the fact that we could make an improv movie. Basically, it was Kate’s challenge to me and then it happened very quickly.
Kate has said that the two of you actually did have a brief long-distance relationship, which is suggested in the film by the videos at the beginning and end of the film that were obviously shot during a different time. Was it an easy decision to include?
Yeah, it’s bookended by these two pieces of footage from the beginning and the end and I just thought, that’s so valuable. If we’re going to make a movie that draws from real life, wouldn’t it be incredible to include footage of when we really did go out? It just felt like the right thing and it wasn’t actually in the treatment that I wrote. But then when we were in the editing room, I happened to look at that old footage and there’s a few scenes where I’m looking at my phone, so we realized that it would be nice to bookend [the film that way] and put that footage on the big-screen, full-screen. That first [archival clip] where I’m telling the person holding the iPhone, “Get a close-up. Get a close-up of her. Get a close-up,” I also thought that was a nice way of grounding the fact that this is all directed. Even though it’s going to seem really diaristic and personal, this is all quite manipulated in its way.
You also seem to separate yourself from other improvised films with how sophisticated the camerawork often is. There seems to be steadicams and even drones. Was part of the intention?
Every day, we had very ambitious shot lists. We probably shot 50% of what we conceived for each day. But when you can do something that formally contributes emotionally to what you’re seeing in the film, and it’s not too complicated, you do it. Like when Vish [Eugene’s neighbor in the film] shows up at night, we took the time to black out the windows, because we shot that at 4 pm, and have a gaffer light it well, so it looks funny, like he’s coming from the darkness into this noirish streak and when he reacts to Kate laying there, we go from out of focus into focus. It just feels so creepy, but funny. When we watched it yesterday at the premiere, it got so many laughs, so I [thought], “Glad we took the time to do that.”
At the same time, we shot the film in eight days, so you really have to pick your battles. If it was up to me, I’d have 60 days to make a movie and everything would be conceptually and formally [copasetic]. My favorite directors are very formally on point, like Max Ophuls or Martin Scorsese or Pedro Almodovar or [Ingmar] Bergman — that’s the perfect mix of formal decisions with very naturalistic [filmmaking] or in the case of Almodovar, naturalistic but heightened acting.
With eight days, how did you go to so many locations?
We had a very good producer, Brande Bytheway, and I worked with her before on music videos. She’s just very resourceful and she’s very smart. We shot everything out of sequence. I’m a big believer of the fact that the ideas in the script that you conceive of, you have to be logistically minded. If there’s something there that seems like it would fuck up the entire schedule or make the filmmaking so much harder, you have to toss it or figure out a way to put it in a different context where you get the same idea across but it doesn’t cost a million dollars or involve 100 extras or a difficult-to-get location. Those limitations actually can be very useful in the creative process.
The fact that we had to shoot this in 8 days and we weren’t going to be permitted, you just go to the airport and you steal the shots. We had crazy days — for instance, all the stuff at the radio station, in the Lyft car, any shots outside of my house during the day, and the nightclub scene, were all in one day and [ultimately], it’s probably only 12 or 13 minutes of screen time. We did it all in one day.
The film’s opening sequence is one of the best I’ve seen in some time. How did you get Teddy Blanks, who did the titles for “Listen Up Phillip,” involved for the animation?
Teddy’s great. We’re really lucky that he did that. Openings are really important to me. The kernel of the movie [I initially had] was the fight that Kate and I have that turns into the drone shot on the 4th of July [at the end of the film]. That’s the first scene that kept repeating in my mind, so the second thing that I thought of was how it starts with Kate landing and while she’s doing that, I’m fucking [my girlfriend in the film] and when the plane lands, that’s when there’s the money shot. The dialectic of those two things felt really cool to me, and for a long time, we were cutting between the noises of the fucking and the airplane white noise. But then I just thought, “You know, I don’t want to scare people. That’s so raw. We could soften it a little bit and it’d still feel really raw to 90% of people who saw it.”
So we put Jon Mandabach, who composed music, to hint that this was going to be funny and emotionally sensitive and then we put on Teddy’s very playful titles. When I sent Teddy the movie, I said, “What do you think?” He said, “I love this. It reminds me of [Jonathan Demme’s] ‘Something Wild.’” So that, and also ’80s Spike Lee, were his reference points for that and because to me, the golden age of American independent filmmaking is the ’80s where you have Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee and Jonathan Demme making great movies, I liked that throwback in there. It softens it and it make it feel like, wow, this is playful and professional. This isn’t just a weird, porny thing.
Did you actually think about audience accessibility much? This would seem to be your most mainstream work to date.
Not any more than normal. For me, the bottom line is just making something that people are going to enjoy watching, whether that enjoyment comes from straight comedy or just sight gags, a deeply felt relatability or making people actively think. I always just try to make something that I think is fun and interesting to watch and hope other people will, too. Structurally maybe, this is the easiest to consume, but you evolve. I feel like I’m always reacting to the thing I did before or the thing that I’m doing that I can’t do. If I had to analyze myself, this movie is probably a reaction to the script that I was writing at the time, which was complicated and featured really heightened characters and relationships. This movie is satirical and characterized, but very diaristic, and that’s really valuable actually.
It seems like the most fun anyone had on this film was in the props department. You show off a butcher’s knife with cursive handwriting on it…
That’s a real thing. Vish was my neighbor [in real life]. Vish did come over on my birthday and just go, “Happy Birthday!” And he read this birthday card to me [written in cursive on the butcher’s knife] and left. You saw him in the movie and he’s playing a caricature, an exaggerated version of himself, but that’s him more or less and I wanted to capture his essence. Then the other props you’re maybe thinking of are the poop and the ejaculate. Those were created by the production designer Joan [Howard Lee]. Those are trade secrets, but [the poop involved] insulated foam and rubber that she then painted very realistically, so it has the right weight and the ejaculate is Cetaphil and something else, but it looks real, right?
Yesterday at the premiere, people were groaning but laughing and that’s kind of what we wanted. The poop, to me, was so important. A lot of people when we were making it like, “Don’t do that, Eugene. It’s so gross.” But I knew this was going to have some of the tropes of a romantic comedy and I like the ’70s romantic comedies like “Minnie and Moskowitz” or Robert Altman’s “A Perfect Couple” or “Annie Hall,” [in which] you have that great lobster scene where they’re trying to cook the lobster and I was like, “Well, how do we just make the grossest version of that?” I’m happy with that scene.
If you weren’t a fan of improvised films before, were you excited by what was actually happening on set? There’s a scene where Kate looks like she’s about to break when she’s consulting with a psychic, which is a different kind of energy than that scene might have otherwise had.
It depends because it’s not like we’re arriving at a place that we weren’t planning to arrive. That [scene] was something where we shot seven takes. Each time I was like, “Okay, you’re going to be freaking out. You have to be freaking out. You’re almost on the verge of tears,” so there is this intentionality there. But at the end of the day, I am a control freak, so I think that’s what I was averse to regarding improv films because there’s this tendency to let things go or get self-indulgent in a lot of that practice. You can’t do that in an eight-day movie.
It was very Herzog-ian in that way, just three takes and you’re done. That’s very helpful because you limit what the possibilities are. We knew where we were all going and the exploring of it to keep it interesting just comes more in the dialogue. The emotions are something that you figure out ahead of time because if you arrive at emotions that you didn’t expect to arrive at for any of the characters, it throws off the tone and when you’re doing something that you want to be entertaining, you can have challenging shifts in tones, so if you really want audiences to be engaged, you explore either funny actions or good dialogue.
What was the premiere like for you?
It was great. It was a full theater and some of the cast members hadn’t seen it yet. It was cool just hearing people laugh. My editor who lived in Austin for awhile actually pointed out in the front, “That’s Harry Knowles.” Then I was watching him for a lot of it and he was digging it. He was really digging it and he was looking over to his wife to the right and he was smiling at her and he clapped at the end. That was a cool feeling for me, to watch it with an audience, because we had a few little previews with random people, but to see it on the big screen with an audience was great and it felt right. This may sound a bit braggy, but I saw “Strangers in Paradise” at Film Forum [where] I had to go into the city from Brooklyn when I was young, and I was like, “Whoa, this is crazy. This feels right.” This felt like that to me.
“A Wonderful Cloud” will open on October 23rd in Los Angeles at the Pasadena Playhouse 7. It will also be available on demand.