Right now, only the most dedicated aficionados of American independent cinema know the name Zach Clark (pictured below). He has directed three features to date - Rock & Roll Eulogy (2004); Modern Love is Automatic (2009); Vacation! (2010) - that have proven to be warm yet confronting low-budget works that have divided critics and wowed midnight crowds with their wit and stark portrayal of sexual peccadilloes. With his latest, White Reindeer, he edges closer to the mainstream yet retains a bracing knack for pitch black humour and real-world melancholy. And sex. Clark spoke with SBS Film prior to the Australian premiere of White Reindeer at the Revelation Perth International Film Festival.
I think that the best Christmas movies have a sadness and strangeness [to them].
The odyssey that Suzanne goes through in White Reindeer will be difficult for some to identify with, as the actions of a woman suffering through grief, yet you capture her pain so vividly. Is Suzanne someone, or some type, that you know particularly well?
All my movies so far have been very autobiographical, except I've never done anything that any of the characters do. White Reindeer is a break-up movie, about the fallout of a long-term relationship, which is its own kind of death. It's about forgiving and moving on, and understanding that there are two sides to every story and that the other side has feelings, too. I also really wanted to explicitly set a movie in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington DC, where I grew up. Lots of the locations are places I have some emotional connection to, or memories of. So, the whole thing is very personal, but not in any traditional, explicitly autobiographical way. A lot of things are very, very different from my life, obviously.
How do you define your use of and the dramatic potency of contradiction? The film is full of moments, both overt and deeply subtle, that feature mismatched but coherent elements.
When I was about 11 or 12, my family was attending Christmas at my grandparents' house. My mum and dad were helping my grandmother in the kitchen, and my younger brother and sister and I were in the library with my grandfather. He was suffering from Alzheimer's and a small-talky conversation turned into a paranoid rant about how everyone was out to get him and no one believed, which turned into him weeping in front of us. We didn't how to react. I think my sister said, 'Don't cry, Grandpa' but that didn't do any good. We sat there in awkward silence, watching. And that's when 'It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year' started playing on the radio. I've never forgotten that moment. At the time, painfully awkward and sad, and in retrospect, also hilarious. A lot of reviews point out the juxtaposition of Christmas kitsch with the sad, strange content of the story, but I don't know that I even them as juxtaposed, or contradictory. It's been my experience that they go hand in hand.
Perhaps it's a long bow to pull, but I was reminded of films like Joe Dante's Gremlins or Terry Zwigoff Bad Santa, other films that evoke classic Christmas imagery and sentiment in the service of a dark story. Are you are Christmas person or do you view it with dark glasses?
I love Christmas with all my heart and soul. And I come from a family that loves Christmas. My sister's middle name is Noel, just like Suzanne's is in the movie. I start listening to Christmas music in November. Most of Suzanne's decorations in the movie are my own. I get way into it every year (except the year we shot the movie; I was just too busy.) I couldn't imagine spending three years of my life making a Christmas movie and not loving it. And I also think that the best Christmas movies have a sadness and strangeness [to them]. It's A Wonderful Life is one of the most depressing movies ever made. Even a kid's movie like Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer is about characters who get together because no one else wants them.
Names like Fassbinder, Solondz and particularly Douglas Sirk have been used in reference to White Reindeer. Who has influenced you significantly, both with this film and your filmmaking style in general?
All That Heaven Allows was my 'spirit' movie for this one. I tried to learn from it as much as I could and its Christmas scenes were tonally what I was aiming for with the entire movie. The most direct references I put in were to the work of an exploitation filmmaker named Joe Sarno who made a series of wife-swapping movies in the '60s that are all great. The masks in the swinger party are directly lifted from those movies. In high school and college, I worked in an alternative video store that specialised in cult movies, classic Hollywood and Euro-art house, and my aesthetic has been inspired equally by all of those.
Your films to date have used graphic physicality and language in their depiction of sex. Interestingly, though, the character of Fantasia, the person for whom sexuality is most intrinsically linked, is the most grounded, real and focussed character. How do your films convey your philosophy on sex and cinema?
I try to treat that content as honestly as possible. I made a movie about a dominatrix called Modern Love Is Automatic, and the approach to all the S&M content there was to make it as un-salacious as possible. I wanted to take the same approach to S&M that most movies take to eating a sandwich; it's just something that happens in the course of a day. For White Reindeer, I wanted the show the people involved in what might be considered seedier sexual practices to be better adjusted than those that weren't. Fantasia works as a stripper, but also takes care of her sick mom and her young daughter, so she has to be responsible and she has to be level headed. And she goes out and parties, too, but she wakes up in the morning and goes to work the next day. George and Patti, the swinger couple, are the happiest characters in the movie, with a really positive outlook on things. Suzanne tries to participate in these other lifestyles, but she can't quite handle them. They do help her, even if they aren't the answers she's looking for.
Finally, your incredible lead actress. Tell me of the relationship you share with Anna Margaret Hollyman that allowed you to both trust each other to bring this character to life?
I met Anna Margaret during the casting process. We had several mutual friends and she was strongly recommended to us. She came in and auditioned and totally killed it. Leading up to the movie, we'd meet up and have dinner and talk about the script and life and movies and things like that. I gave her a stack of movies to watch, which served as tonal reference points. This is the third movie I've made with my producing partners, Melodie Sisk and Daryl Pittman. Daryl is also the cinematographer and Melodie also did hair, make-up and wardbrobe, and plays the sweater model, too. So, we've got a close-knit little group that makes these things and we're all nice people and we all get along. I believe a fun, relaxed set is the ideal setting for everyone to do their best work. It also helps that Anna Margaret is about as smart and talented an actress as anyone could ever hope to work with. And funny!