Chicago Film Fest 2023 Interview: Olmo Schnabel on Unlocking the Cage in “Pet Shop Days”

“You like movies?” Alejandro (Dario Yazbek Bernal) asks Jack (Jack Irv), not long after they’ve met in “Pet Shop Days,” barely letting him answer before asking, “You want to get fucked up?” In Olmo Schnabel’s dizzying directorial debut, the experience can be similar when thrust into the liminal space between high and low culture and childhood and adulthood when the two twentysomethings at its center are trapped in arrested development they perhaps they can help one another out of if they don’t plunge each other further into it, running around New York and indulging in all sorts of debaucherous behavior. It may look like fun sneaking into strip clubs and sticking up residents of high rises by pretending to be UPS deliverymen to help fund their active nightlife, but working from a script co-written with Irv and Galen Core, Schnabel considers what they’re running away from, with both Alejandro and Jack distancing themselves from their fathers (played by Jordi Molla and Willem Dafoe, respectively) who they’ve been disappointed by and seemingly intent on proving their masculinity with how aggressively they pursue vices.

When the two can only look to each other for guidance and neither has the experience to know better, the relationship that turns sexual reveals how tenderness can be as much a masculine trait as any other, yet perhaps the furthest out of reach when Alejandro and Jack find easy access to sex and drugs but getting anywhere near one another’s sensitivities requires real work. That moments of true intimacy may be the most harrowing in “Pet Shop Days” is saying something when Alejandro, on the run after nearly killing his mother (Maribel Verdu) as races out of Mexico so upset at his father, is pursued by one of his emissaries (Louis Cancelmi) even after crossing the border and Jack can enable his worst impulses by being open to try just about anything when he wants to prove to himself that he isn’t the aimless leech his dad believes him to be.

One probably shouldn’t read too much into Schnabel wanting to tell this particular story when he previously worked with his own father Julian as an assistant on “At Eternity’s Gate” and there’s an early cheeky nod to him when Jack can be seen watching a clip of “Basquiat” early on in “Pet Shop Days,” and if there’s any connection, it’s in making an auspicious feature debut. With the zesty 16mm cinematography of Hunter Zimny, “Pet Shop Days” feels tactile aesthetically and emotionally and the night, during which much of the film resides, is continually thick with possibilities. On the eve of a big evening of his own at the U.S. premiere of the film at the Chicago Film Festival following its initial bow at Venice, Schnabel graciously took to the time to talk about how he got all that frenetic energy up on screen, putting together Irv and Bernal to become such a dynamic duo and making a piece of cinematic escapism that nonetheless hits home.

You’ve established yourself quite a bit as a producer, but was directing something you had in mind for a while or did you get bit by the bug on another set?

I think it was always a dream of mine since I was a kid, but it was more about coming into my own and having the confidence to really want to do this, and not be scared of failing because that’s something we all go through, right? When we’re young and we want to do something, but what if it doesn’t go the way I want it to go? Eventually I just got to the point in my life where I realized that even failure would be something positive. So I always wanted to direct. I had worked on some other projects where producing made more sense, but when this script ended up on my laptop — Jack sent this to me when he was working on it in college — I begged him basically to be able to direct this movie, and it took him a while to wrap his head around it and to let me in. Obviously, when we create something and it’s precious to us, we don’t want other people to take it as theirs, but I think that over time I proved to him that I was the right person to do it, and that I was going to take care of it.

It takes a really interesting path to showing toxic masculinity and these relationships between fathers and sons. Was that structure already in place when you first got the script from Jack or something you had to develop?

Toxic masculinity was always present in it, but once Galen and I started working on it, it was insane. It [still] is a crazy adventure, but it was even crazier and bigger and more far-fetched, so basically we wanted to sculpt it into something that was more grounded in reality. Even though the story’s far out and heightened at points, a lot of the relationships between the parents and the kids are all very grounded in either experiences we had growing up or experiences or different relationships of people we knew and I hope that it feels genuine because there’s nothing convoluted or contrived about it.

I imagine that Jack was pretty set on being one of the two leads if he wrote it, but how did Dario come aboard?

Dario and I have been friends for a very long time and I’m very close with Michel Franco, who works with him and is an executive producer on this. Dario had read the script two years ago, and he had a lot of good ideas. He made it clear to me that he wanted to be in the film and I always wanted to just work with people who wanted to do it. That was a big thing when we were hiring people, whether it was the crew [or] anybody who was involved. I wanted to know why they wanted to do it. I didn’t want to have to convince someone to be in the movie. If I had to convince them, it wasn’t worth it because it meant they didn’t feel it. And I thought it was like unlike anything he had ever done, so it was a great opportunity for an actor to step out of their comfort zone and do something completely different. [And Dario] has nothing to do with the character. He’s one of the sweetest, most gentle, thoughtful people in the world, but it was amazing how he came in and all of a sudden just transformed into Alejandro and turned into this crazy character that I think the great thing about him is there’s a lot we like and there’s a lot we hate, so as an audience, we can be conflicted about him.

Did he and Jack know each other beforehand or once you get them in the room together, you start seeing their dynamic, does that change ideas of what this could be?

Jack and Dario did not know each other, but I have a very long history with both of them, and it was important for me to be able to influence how they would relate to each other — what they would say to each other, how they touch each other, what would bother one about the other, and there’s a lot of my relationship with Jack and my relationship with Dario in the film. Also, the character of Alejandro is based off somebody [so I’d think] what would he do? I know that character so well. So it wasn’t completely left open and we had a very good idea of how the boys were supposed to relate to one another.

Then when [Jack and Dario] met, they became extremely close, and what was really important is they met in the same way that they meet in the film. Out of nowhere, these two were just super close and intimate with one another after not knowing each other, and a lot of that translates into the relationship because they were getting to know each other. By the time we get to the end of the movie, they had been through so much together that you could feel that in the relationship and the chemistry is influenced by the chemistry that they actually had in real life.

That energy just comes right off the screen. And I love the scene with Jack that’s set to Concrete Blonde’s “Joey,” and it’s a real dance between him and the camera – what was it like to get that kind of frenzy on screen?

We knew we wanted that scene to have energy — this adolescent excitement of when you’ve had a great day and you haven’t had that many, and then all of a sudden, you met a guy you liked and then the tutor you also almost kissed and then you’re in your room and you’re alone and you can finally express yourself with no one judging you. And Jack loves that song, and he can be pretty shy sometimes, so when we got in there, it was just him, the camera and the sound person. I was in the closet, just watching on a monitor and basically I didn’t give him the option to think about what he was doing. So I [would say] “Do pushups” and he would do pushups, or “Okay, get up and now run around and do this and do this.” So he didn’t have time to be self-conscious. We just basically ran two takes of it and got as much material as possible.

I really wanted him to be as spontaneous as possible and I think you can see that. You can’t hear me screaming at him, but I was in the closet just telling him what to do and then he just started having fun because he loved that song. Obviously, you see him playing with the knife and he cuts his finger and then he puts some blood on his face and I think it unleashed an animal that he has inside of him because he’s very capable of being spontaneous and loud, but he comes off as someone who’s very shy and timid. I’ve known him my whole life and I know that he has this other aspect of his [personality], and that’s what we were always playing with — the silent, sweet Jack and then the crazy Jack that could do anything.

This may be getting too far into the weeds, but that room of his is also just such an interesting environment. Was that interesting to dress?

It’s my favorite set of the movie, and that’s how [Jack’s] room looks in real life. I remember Maddie Sadowski, the production designer, and I just said, “Go to his room and just take everything out of his room and then let’s just build that somewhere else.” And that’s what we did. He’s always been someone who expresses himself artistically. We added some stuff, but you walk into his room and it’s just a giant collage. He has all these different kinds of objects and relics around the room and it tells its own story, and you can see a lot about Jack’s personality in his room.

But I love that set and that’s built inside of the same house where we do the the robbery at the end of the film that a friend of mine, his family was renovating it, so we got in there beforehand and we kept one part of it intact and then the other half, we basically used as a studio setup and built a whole house apartment there. That gave us the ability to actually stay in one place for a week-and-a-half while the rest of the shoot, we were changing two locations a day, driving around all over the city, and we needed that stability so that we could pull this off. If we didn’t have that, I don’t know if we would have been able to, to accomplish everything we did.

You have a really incredible ensemble and I imagine when you’re filling out all the supporting roles with actors in demand, it must’ve been difficult to piece together a schedule. What was it like to make the most of your time?

The story itself always had all these kind of wacky character interactions, so I thought it was really important that the people that would play these characters on screen [were memorable], and I thought that we got very lucky. To be able to work with Emmanuelle Seigner or Maribel Verdu or Jordi Molli or Peter Greene or Louis Cancelmi or Peter Sarsgaard or Camille Rowe, even though it was a moment or a cameo, I wanted it to be important because the story is about these two boys and then everything around them. I didn’t want that to ever to feel claustrophobic or small. But putting the movie together, we needed to wait to see when Willem [Dafoe] was going to be available and that took forever because he’s very busy. Then all of a sudden we got the call that he’d be available for a week, so we basically scheduled the whole movie around him and we didn’t really have any room for error. If we missed a day, someone would be on the plane the next day. He wouldn’t be around anymore, so that made the stakes pretty high. But I think now you could feel that translate into the film. We couldn’t take anything for granted and we needed to use everything we had.

What’s it like to start to get out into the world?

I’m super excited. A long time ago, I would have been scared to maybe put something out in the world, but now I feel extremely lucky and privileged to be able to be in this position and whether it’s good or bad, I think it’s just important to see if a piece of art can make people react. I really just want to see how people respond and what makes people jump. I’m super excited about showing the film tonight in Chicago. It’s the American premiere, and it’s also really important to see how American audiences will respond to film like this because I think it has elements of things that we can identify with here, but I also think it feels foreign, so it’s going to be very interesting in the setting and I hope that the film also finds the right library, so anybody could see it. That’s my ultimate goal is that the film can just exist and for it to survive.

“Pet Shop Days” will screen at the Chicago Film Festival on October 21st at 12:15 pm at AMC NewCity, Screen 6.

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