When Todd Rohal was raising money on Kickstarter for his latest film “Rat Pack Rat,” he offered himself up for any number of odd jobs his backers might have for him. Thankfully, no one took him up on it.
“I’m terrible at that stuff,” laughs Rohal, clearly relieved that no one wanted him to perform the kind of truly odd jobs that one might suspect fans and friends of the subversive filmmaker might ask of him.
However, Rohal made good – very good, in fact – with the resulting short, “Rat Pack Rat,” which will debut this week in his adopted hometown of Austin after premiering at Sundance earlier this year where it won a Special Jury Prize for Unique Vision. A bleak yet caustically funny 18-minute slice of perverse Americana, the film centers on a Sammy Davis Jr. impersonator (Eddie Rouse) reduced to entertaining a bed-bound manchild (Steve Little) whose various afflictions have kept him sheltered and longing for human connection.
Although finding these two men at their lowest lows might be the basis for a Hallmark card from other filmmakers, it is anything but from Rohal, who as he’s done in previous films such as “The Guatamalan Handshake” and “Catechism Cataclysm,” pushes the profane and ridiculous into the sublime and even profound. Delightfully unhinged, it’s also an acutely observed study of quiet desperation, no doubt protected in its singular tone by the stellar group of fellow filmmakers Rohal surrounded himself with, including cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke (“Your Sister’s Sister”) and producers Megan Griffiths (“Eden”) and Clay Liford (“Wuss”).
On the eve of “Rat Pack Rat”’s debut at SXSW, where he last appeared with the Patton Oswalt and Johnny Knoxville-led boy scout comedy “Nature Calls,” Rohal spoke about the creatively rejuvenating process of making a short after the disappointment of his last feature, finding a community in Texas’ capital city and how “urine-stained” coloring can serve the purpose of being nostalgic.
I had been gearing up to shoot a feature last year with the same people I made “Catechism Cataclysm” with, the last feature that was really my thing, and the money fell apart, so I started writing this other feature that could be done very fast and cheap like “Catechism.” Eddie Rouse, the actor who’s in the short, came to me and said, “I had this idea that I could play Sammy Davis Jr. Could you come up with something for that?” I said, “Well, I can’t really do a biopic thing, but let me start writing stuff…” and I started writing a feature idea for him as a Sammy Davis Jr. impersonator that lived in Reno, [about] what’s it like to be at the bottom of the barrel, [where] you’re failing at failing and what that’s like, but still being persistent and following your path.
I was writing this whole feature idea for that, then I just basically wrote this one scene for him and Steve Little that is what the short is. I looked at that and I thought I can’t get this feature together now, but we could shoot this short in three days and just do it here in Austin. I just really wanted to have something new and the idea of doing a short seemed a little nuts. I was like I don’t even know what we do with that, but I just decided to try to Kickstart a thing and tell everybody there’s no return on your income, but what happens if we make something for the sake of making it and giving it away? That led to this idea.
If Eddie Rouse came to you, he obviously had a good idea of what he could do as Sammy Davis Jr., but how did you know he could pull something like this off?
I’ve known Eddie for a little while and had written multiple things for him and we did a movie together called “Nature Calls,” that was all hacked up, but his performance in that was incredible. In terms of the Sammy Davis Jr. performance, I didn’t care. The level of how he looked like Sammy Davis Jr. or acted like [him] didn’t matter and I didn’t know what he was going to do until we were on the set. It doesn’t have to be a spot-on Sammy Davis Jr., but I had the trust in him that performance-wise, he’d play this thing dead real and that as ridiculous as this idea was, he’d play it so straight and so real and so sincere that the most ridiculous thing you could feel emotionally connected to. It may have been an ambitious hope, but Eddie is what makes the short work is because his sincerity is just so grounded in there.
Since you mention not having the greatest time with “Nature Calls,” did that experience have any impact on making this film? On Hammer to Nail, I thought Michael Tully might be alluding to something when he said “Rat Pack Rat” felt “deeply personal without resorting to hackneyed, self-indulgent autobiography,” especially if you see this film as being about an entertainer making extreme sacrifices to do what they’re good at.
Yeah, but I pulled multiple shitty experiences into one and from both sides. [laughs] One from an entertainers’ side where it’s like I’ve always really wanted to make movies and be an entertainer —not on screen, but as a filmmaker — and for me, that experience of making “Nature Calls” was just a total disaster for me. It was just so depressing to me because it was a movie that was made with people that didn’t like my ideas, that didn’t trust me and turned what I believed could’ve been a great movie into a debacle for me even before we started shooting.
Then the other side of it was I’m a person that’s unfortunately spent a good amount of time in hospitals and know how humiliating — equally humiliating — that is to be in Steve Little’s position where you’re strapped down and have little tubes in you. But it’s also how funny and ridiculous a lot of that can be when you’re not in control of your body or just have these embarrassing things going on, so it’s two humans in very humiliating positions facing one another and understanding that humiliation and accepting it. It’s exaggerated on both levels and played for laughs, but there’s definitely a humanity within both of those roles, pulling from some familiar things to me.
There’s this guy here in Austin named Nick Derington, who’s not a film person, he’s a comic book illustrator, and he just has this ability to make these props. He drew me a picture of what he was going to build and said he could do it with Home Depot parts for like $150. We were looking for something Victorian-ish mixed with 1970s iron lung technology and he just ran with it and made this puke-green-looking device, which [like] our mantra for the whole thing was just urine-stained. Everything should just feel like it’s been puked on a hundred times. Color-wise, he nailed it with that machine.
That’s one way to describe the color, but I thought it also could be interpreted as nostalgic.
Yeah, we definitely bordered on some “Wonder Years” looking stuff. When we were doing the color on it too, it was just like wow, how do we find a balance between something that’s sickly and feels gross and yet is warm? And we talked about “The Wonder Years” a good bit when we were doing the final color. [laughs] Even “Delicatessen” and movies like that have that really soft, warm lighting I’ve always been kind of into and this movie was [shot in] such a confined, close space and it still has to stay dark, but yet have that warmth, so that seemed right for how this would look.
Since it sounds like a community really came together for this, how have you liked having Austin as a base? It’s not where you’re originally from, right?
Right, I moved around a good bit, but I love it here. I went to a small film school in Ohio and I just loved the aspect of being in a small community where everybody is making things together in close proximity to one another. When we were shooting this, Kat Candler was finishing “Hellion” down the street and her editor is an old friend of mine, so he’s living with me. Clay [Liford]’s working on his script and we’re working in my kitchen together on stuff and that kind of feel is all I’ve ever wanted in my life. When we were making this, it was like I thought I’m in an idyllic world.
David Gordon Green was shooting his new thing “Manglehorn” down the street and all those people were coming into town who were old friends and here you meet people super fast and there’s no pretension, no competition. And I know that at some point, that bubble will burst and somebody will move here that just destroys it. But right now, it’s an idyllic world [where] we just go watch movies at Austin Film Society and the Alamo and everybody’s participating and supporting one another and has such different voices that it’s very easy just to move here and get into it and just start making things. That’s all it takes.
Was it different to make something like this where you made it available on YouTube so everyone could see it as soon as it premiered at Sundance?
Mike Plante at Sundance wrote and asked about that and Kat Candler had put her short film “Black Metal” on YouTube [last year], and I loved that idea because that’s what it was about. How do we get people to watch our movies? And having it promoted by Sundance during the festival seemed to make total sense. Other people are still caught up in that [idea] “oh, we need to have exclusive rights.” I ran the numbers and it’s like 0.00000041 percent of the world’s population has seen the movie. There’s no reason not to put something out there, especially if it’s just there, it’s available and no one making anything off of it. That’s the purpose of making it is to share the work, especially for a short like this. For a feature, it’s different because we’re dealing with a lot of people’s money that they’d like to have back, but for something like this, it just seemed like how do we just get eyes on it?
And yet having it at SXSW must be nice too.
Yeah, any kind of Austin support and having people go to see it. It is a different experience seeing it in the theater than watching it on a laptop. Hearing audience reaction at Sundance was tremendous. It was such a great mix of gasps and people laughing. A couple people got up and walked out because it was too disgusting, but multiple responses to the same image is great and you can feel a weird tension in the room. It was very uncomfortable and you don’t get that watching it at home. I think you still get something out of the movie, but having theatrical screenings are a fun experience because you don’t know where it’s going to go.
Even seeing it on the small screen, I thought this is one of the purest distillations of everything I enjoy about your work.
Thanks. I feel the same way. This is what I’ve wanted to make, especially after that last experience where it’s up on screen and I’m like, there’s funny stuff in this, but certainly what we’re seeing here isn’t a solitary voice. So to make something that you can put up there and be like yeah, this is the feeling I had and I feel like that feeling is being translated to the viewer, God, that’s a great feeling. That’s why I want to do these things. That’s what I get out of it.