Sundance 2022 Interview: Lewie and Noah Kloster on Pulling Some Strings with “Stranger Than Rotterdam with Sara Driver”

Around the time Lewie and Noah Kloster were finishing building the sets for “Stranger Than Rotterdam with Sara Driver,” the brothers learned that the Jim Jarmusch-directed classic “Stranger Than Paradise” would be playing nearby at the Roxy Cinema in New York. Naturally, they had watched it for reference at home when it would be the focal point of their latest animated short, but seeing it play the big screen was like seeing it anew.

“It was probably my tenth time seeing the film, but it was the first time I ever saw it in the theater,” says Lewie. “I didn’t know I could like the film any better, but I ended up falling into even a deeper love of the film.”

Adds Noah, “One thing you notice is when you watch it alone, you’re just silent, but if you watch it with a crowd of people and you hear people, wow… Me and Lewie really think that [Jarmusch] is an unsung hero of comedic timing. The timing and dialogue of his films are so funny, and they work unlike any other film.”

If the Klosters could be as thrilled now as audiences were watching the beguiling comedy that launched Jarmusch into the international filmmaking pantheon, opening the door to a number of other American independent filmmakers with offbeat sensibilities in the 1980s, they took that feeling and infused it directly into their collaboration with Jarmusch’s longtime partner Sara Driver, who shares for the first time the outrageous tale of how “Stranger Than Paradise” reached the public. The producer had enough trouble marshaling the low-budget production instigated by a gift of short ends of leftover 35mm film stock from Wim Wenders, which meant Jarmusch couldn’t waste a frame, but getting the film to its festival premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival was arguably even more fraught, with a ticket from the fest’s director Hubert Bals contingent on bringing over Robert Frank’s personal copy of “Cocksucker Blues” from New York to the Netherlands, avoiding the wrath of the Rolling Stones, which had forbidden the release of the finished film about them, and Dutch authorities that could seize the film under pornography laws.

Though Driver speaks with a survivor’s swagger, she can pinpoint the exact moment in which Jarmusch’s hair turned into a shock of white because of the experience and that frenetic energy is laced throughout “Stranger Than Rotterdam,” which is bursting with as much invention on the part of the Klosters, who turn to puppetry to do the story justice, as Jarmusch and Driver bring to their own work. An electrifying nine-minute saga in which cigarettes are reimagined as airplanes and the transatlantic trek of the fragile film prints is underscored by the propulsive beats of the post-punk trio the Bush Tetras, the film is just the latest tribute to the ingenuity and excitement to be found in the underground scene of the Klosters’ adopted hometown of New York, following “Shots in the Dark,” which put audiences in the middle of CBGB’s heyday with photographer David Godlis, and “Legal Smuggling,” which joined “Who Killed Vincent Chin” filmmaker Christine Choy as she located her favorite brand of Benson & Hedges cigarettes across the Canadian border at a fraction of the cost they were in Manhattan.

With “Stranger Than Rotterdam” premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, where it’s available virtually anywhere in the U.S. until January 30th, the Klosters told their own wild tale of meeting Driver and conjuring the film’s unique blend of their distinctive hand-drawn caricatures and 3D objects, as well as meeting the considerable demands of working with puppets for the first time and serving the crazy story Driver was telling.

How did this come about?

Lewie Kloster: [Sara Driver] came and talked at an event that I was just attending called Artist academy at the Lincoln Center during the New York Film Festival and near the end of her talk, while she was on stage talking about her experience of producing her documentary about Jean-Michel Basquiat called “Boom for Real,” she was given a leaflet of all of the attendees who were in the crowd and looked down at this paper. And she was like, “Is a Lewie Kloster here?” And I didn’t know she was given this paper and I thought she was going to be like, “I found your ID in the lobby. Come get it from me, you idiot.” But she just said, “It says here you made a film called ‘Legal Smuggling With Christine Choy.’” That was our first film we ever made. And she goes, “Well, how the hell is she?” Because Sara used to be an adjunct professor at NYU and Christine Choy was the chair of grad film at some point. Noah and I were sitting in the back because we’re kind of late risers, and this was in the morning, [and afterwards] we met her and she’s like, “I’d love to see your film.” We found out that we really got along with each other, but she didn’t know what our work was like at all, so I sent her the [film], and she e-mailed back later, “This is my new favorite film ever.”

I’d never been more flattered in my life, getting that from Sara Driver and she had some events coming up to further promote “Boom For Real,” so [Noah and I] just started going to them and after maybe the second or third one, we were just like, “Would you want to make a film with us? Do you have like a story you’d want to tell?” And she was like, “Yeah, I have a story that I’ve never told.” And it was this film. That began a two-year long friendship of us going over with a microphone and ending up talking about other bullshit because we get along so well. It’s like she’s our best friend at this point and the fact that it took two years to do the voiceover was like the biggest blessing in disguise ever because we couldn’t be more close with anyone right now than we are with her. It’s just been great.

The story itself has a great number of tangents. Was it easy to narrow down to its essence?

Lewie Kloster: Oh, my God. [laughs] This story is intrinsically confusing. I had three of my smartest friends, I’m talking like Brainiac, Einstein, story smart people come over, and listen to the 14 hours of interviews with her and there’s even more tangents. Danny Seymour, the co-director of [“Cocksucker Blues”], died at sea during a drug bust that went bad, four or five years after they made the film and we were thinking about including that for being another reason why this film is so bizarre. Then there’s also the tangent in the story about how their own film [“Stranger Than Paradise”] got locked up. So it’s like now we got to keep it straight. This is one film about two films being made and being smuggled. And it was like, they ship their own film to Rotterdam, and then they have to hand carry Cocksucker Blues. Then every shot we’re talking about “Stranger Than Paradise” in the film, you can see the little film can on the ground, and it’s green. And then every time we’re talking about “Cocksucker Blues,” you see the film can, and it’s red. That was a big thing for us to help distinguish because it is so confusing. So there were there times, a month or two into this project, where I’d listen back to the current cut, and I’d be like, “What the fuck am I making?” It would confuse me. This one was hard.

But you pulled it off. I was going to ask about the film canisters because those are 3D while the puppets are paper cutouts. Was it difficult figuring out how those could interact, given weight and other complications?

Lewie Kloster: Yeah, we discovered puppets with this film. We’ve never done puppets, and we’ve never done 3D elements glued to two-dimensional puppets, but there’s a lot of wear and tear that came about on that film can because we would glue it onto a couple people’s hands, carrying the thing. And then you rip it off, and then you’re like, “Fuck, we got to do the shot out again.” And then you glue it back on, and then you rip it off. We always had a hot-glue gun running for any repairs, And Emily [Kreusch], who was an animator on the film, always had the paint mixed for the perfect green or the perfect red because there’s just one film can. We just made one. So she always had the red and green on hand to repaint it like, “Oh, we need the ‘Stranger Than Paradise’ shot. Quick, paint it. Paint it green it’s red right now. Can’t be red.”

It’s funny because I was reminded of when I went to the set of “Team America” and I thought Matt Stone and Trey Parker were joking about how miserable they were working with puppets, but they made it clear they weren’t.

Lewie Kloster: We know how that is. We had never seen “Team America” and when we got the idea to do puppets, we really wanted to watch it for the first time, but we withheld ourselves from watching it because we knew we’d be obsessed with it once we saw it. We just knew it would be our new favorite movie and we’d be too tempted to steal ideas, so we didn’t watch it. But when we finished the film, we finally watched it. I love the fight scene where they’re ready to fight, and then they just-

Noah Kloster: They just run into each other?

Lewie Kloster: They just run into each other. It’s so funny. So good.

What was it like to see this start to come together?

Noah Kloster: This was really exciting because we made all the puppets and all the miniatures and we had it basically taped to the ceiling of [our place] – all these sets. They’re all up there. It’s a 28-foot long shelf, and it’s full of all the sets. We had them all stockpiled in our apartment, and unlike any other film we’ve ever made, shoot day came, and we shot everything in three days. And then after that, we basically had our film.

I can’t believe that. This seems like even after building everything, it’d take forever to get the movement right.

Noah Kloster: Other times, we’d shoot the miniature, or we’d add in the animation, or the animation takes forever, but this is all in camera. There’s really no effects.

Lewie Kloster: Yeah. Then we’re done. I edited it in three days too.

Noah Kloster: Yeah, I was camping because I just wanted to go to the woods for a while because we’d been working on this film for so long, and Lewie sent me the cut and I watched it in my tent, and it dawned on me, “Well, damn, we have a movie here.” It didn’t have any sound effects or music, but it was basically there.

Lewie Kloster: I’ve got to say though, I was scared with that cut. I honestly didn’t really like the film until the Bush Tetras offered their discography to us because they’re really close friends with Sara. We had a cut that the music wasn’t really working on, and she sent it up to Cynthia Sley, who e-mailed us, saying, “I’m your newest, biggest fan and I would love to offer you any music of mine that I’ve made in the past.”

Noah Kloster: And they’re like, “We own it all, so you can choose any song.” Also, when we wanted to use a clip at the end from “Stranger [Than Paradise],” we asked Jim and he was just like, “Let me e-mail my lawyer.” And 20 minutes later, “Yep, you can use it. We own it.”

Lewie Kloster: That’s unheard of now and what’s great about these punks from New York in the late ’70s and ”80s. They’re so ownership-based. It’s amazing. And Sara made the point that we should have period music because she was saying that it’s a period animation and I never thought about it like that, but she’s right. We should have music from the time, capturing the energy of what Sara and Jim were going through in the film industry in music. I mean, it all had the same New York energy.

Your films always have such amazing energy, it’s remarkable to think you don’t add sound until late in the process. Do you have the rhythm in mind while you’re working on it?

Lewie Kloster: It’s my trade. I wanted to be an editor all my life, but I don’t know.

Noah Kloster: It has to do with the dialogue as well. All of our subjects offer a unique rhythm to the way they tell their story. Sara talks very fast and it’s funny because Jim talks so slow, so that’s at play in it too. We have a film about a woman named Laurie Lindeen that’s a little slower paced because it’s about [working in] a diner, so it depends on the narration as well.

Lewie Kloster: Oh, and this is a fun one for you, Stephen. Our sound designer who did the CBGBs film, he knows that Robert Frank’s house is next door to CBGBs, literally less than 100-feet away, so he used sound design that he had already made for street sounds of the CBGBs film. And that street sound is under the shot of Sara approaching Robert Frank. But until I saw the film with the right music, I didn’t see it for what I was hoping it would be. Once I saw that cut [with the Bush Tetras], it even blew me away. I haven’t really re-watched it since, because it’s just, “I’m good.”

Noah Kloster: Yeah, it’s done. But the hardest part is knowing when to put something down and knowing when to stop working on something. We definitely hit that point, and we’re really happy that it’s gotten the reception that it’s gotten. I think it definitely hits that film nerd [vein], but cool enough where it can apply to a non-nerdy audience too. I just hope it brings everyone together that just loves film.

“Stranger Than Rotterdam with Sara Driver” will be available to watch virtually through the Sundance Film Festival from January 20th through 30th. It will next screen virtually at the Rotterdam Film Fest.