Film In Conversation
MICHAEL M. BILANDIC with Gina Telaroli
“I love the vibe out here. It’s so mellow and trippy. Light-years away from the 24/7 shrieking mayhem and abject suffering of earth.”
– Jobe in Jobe’z World
The movies of Michael M. Bilandic miraculously manage to showcase the joy of being alive and in New York City, of unexpected interactions with random weirdos and haphazard nocturnal journeys to nowhere, alongside the utter despair of being human. You leave a Bilandic movie relaxed and smiling but with the very concrete understanding that being alive is a total disaster. His latest film, Jobe’z World, opening January 11th at Cinema Village in NYC, is no exception.
The film centers on the titular Jobe, played with the perfect amount of affect and apathy by Jason Grisell, a small-time drug dealer in New York City who peddles his wares on rollerblades. When a beloved actor dies from a drug overdose after Jobe pays him a visit his laidback life is suddenly overcome by paranoia, creeps, and misadventures. Grisell is strangely charismatic, his unique vocal stylings, pacing and tone, and body language recalling someone like Aldo Ray, a man with a body all his own. It’s a gentle film about an ungentle world that, with the help of Sean Price Williams’s images and the Paul Grimstad’s score, lulls you under its spell in its compact (and kind) sixty-seven minute runtime.
Over the holidays, Bilandic and I sent some emails back and forth about the process of making Jobe’z World and the pros, cons, and unknowns of the new digital cinematic landscape.
Gina Telaroli (Rail): I love how all your films incorporate New York City, from the actual landscapes to all the different cultural scenes and people that inhabit them. I'm curious about your relationship to the city and how you approached it for Jobe'z World?
Michael M. Bilandic: I’m constantly entertained by my surroundings here. I moved to downtown Manhattan, from Chicago, less than two weeks before 9/11 and never considered leaving. Whether it’s seeing a guy in the park with a snake around his neck, sucking on a lemon wedge, saying horrible stuff to passers-by, or peeping a dude on a Segway in a Woody Woodpecker bomber jacket blasting Drake outside of a futuristic-looking gelato stand, or enjoying some Santacon-style bros arguing about ramen outside of a Fight Club-themed novelty bar, I’m always hoping to be amused whenever I leave the house. I was reading an essay by Chris Doyle recently where he quoted Robert Rauschenberg along the lines of, “If you can’t walk around the block and get five ideas, you’re living on the wrong block.” All of my movies are stories that could basically be set on my block. Someone left an Opera Trance CD on the sidewalk a few days ago and I can’t stop thinking about who may have owned it, why they discarded it, and what was the New York opera trance scene like at its peak?! My first feature, Happy Life (2011), is about a failing “happy hardcore” techno record shop in the East Village. It was inspired by walking around, watching niche stores going out of business, and imagining the ridiculousness and tragedy of fighting for something that is painfully out of step. I was Abel Ferrara’s assistant at the time and he executive-produced that film. When I asked him for advice he went out of his way to encourage shooting as much as possible within walking distance of my apartment. The approach to Jobe’z World was no different. We tried to shoot it all in the immediate vicinity of my spot.
Rail: Speaking of the “vicinity of your spot” in another sense, your films are always filled with a super organic-seeming mix of people, many of them friends. I noticed though that for the first time you have a credited casting director (the great Eleonore Hendricks) and I was wondering about the process of casting Jobe'z and also about how people in your life might influence the kinds of stories you tell and the characters you create.
Bilandic: For both casting and assembling the crew it’s really important that everyone get along. If it feels organic it’s because the majority of the collaborators are friends to begin with. And if someone new is thrown into the mix, I try for it to be someone I’d want to hang out with even if we weren’t making a film. Jason Grisell, who plays Jobe, is such a unique performer. I’ve been a fan of his from other movies and from his music, but getting to know him has been such a treat. He’s one of those people who leaves an impression on everyone who knows him. We'd collaborated on an R.A. The Rugged Man music video in the past and I wanted to do something again with him badly. He does a dance holding a corn on the cob on his head in that that is so inexplicable it's truly bizarre. Sean Price Williams, our cinematographer, had worked with Jason on a few of Jason Giampietro and Alex Ross Perry’s movies (as well as the R.A. video I directed). He showed me dailies from [Perry’s] Golden Exits where Jason was being completely nutty and idiosyncratic, on his own wavelength. We were cracking up talking about how much fun it would be to make a whole feature with him. On the other hand, for the very first scene on the first day of shooting the actor who was supposed to play Jobe’s roommate got in some unfortunate trouble and didn’t show up. We had all the equipment and were pumped to shoot… But we had no actor! So we called up Jeremy O. Harris, who we’d been hanging with the night before, and he came in out of the blue and was off the hook. It was totally spontaneous and unrehearsed. Being an intimate group it felt perfectly normal. Eleonore Hendricks is a friend, too, and she did all the photography that appears in Hellaware (2013). I respect her opinions a lot and she definitely helped brainstorm and flesh out the ensemble. She was also in the R.A. video with Jason, acting. One of the biggest additions to the crew was Louis Miller, who is also a bartender at KGB Bar, where we all love to hang out. It was his first time sound-recording a feature and it was such a blast to be with him in a different capacity than our typical routine. It was like everyone from the bar was making a movie rather than sitting around talking about them. I love the films of Warhol/Morrissey or Fassbinder, where you feel like all the actors and crew are such a tight group. You get the sense they were all hanging out before shooting started, and after wrapping you know they went out and kept the mayhem going; that the movies are almost a document of a group of friends as much as narrative experience.
In terms of people in my life influencing the stories and characters, that’s more of a mixed bag. It’s hard to quantify. I enjoy the writing process a lot and the solitary nature of it - going from a blank page to a finished script. Of course there’s elements of people I know, stories I’ve read, and environments I’m familiar with. But, at the end of the day, they’re works of fiction about my own anxiety, worldview, and sense of humor as much as anything else. I’ve never been on a pair of rollerblades in my life, but I do roam around late at night and love it. I can’t help but speculate on who these other weirdos are out there. The stories are basically shaped walking around after hours, and usually on the same streets we shoot.
Rail: We both saw Clint Eastwood’s latest The Mule recently, and for me the real pleasure in that movie was watching Clint alone, talking and singing to himself, often while on the road delivering his packages. When I re-watched Jobe'z World the other night I realized there's a similar pleasure in watching Jason rollerblade around town and listening to his voiceover that accompanies those moments. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about writing/recording the voiceovers and how you filmed the rollerblading and, finally, how you connected the two rhythmically? Those moments move in a really great way.
Bilandic: Ha! I agree. Clint freestyling over the radio and his mumblings to himself are a total delight. Those weird, non-narrative private moments are so good. For some reason that scene in Short Cuts where Robert Downey, Jr.’s wearing a Malcolm X hat, farts, and elbow-drops a pillow on a sofa just came to mind. It’s so odd, yet believable, and seemingly pointless. I was hoping to tap into that sense of plausible absurdity in the skating bits.
With voiceover in film it’s often the main character looking back on the events of the story with some sort of new found wisdom. A lot of recent indie movies, like Listen Up Philip, Thirst Street, or Vox Lux, have also done this thing where a recognizable actor does a narration, adding some authorial gravity while psychoanalyzing the characters. These are great techniques, but we were going for something else. Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time was an obvious influence—but his narrations are so deep and poetic too. I was trying to not worry about it being profound or literate. It’s more the real-time, stream of consciousness, musings of a down-and-out, retired X Games-style, druggy oddball. The comedy is someone grappling with big existential issues, but never following through with his trains of thought, or getting distracted and moving on to the next ‘big idea’ after only a few seconds of the last one. They’re embarrassing to listen to, as I’m sure most of our own internal musings are.
For the blading scenes the obvious choice would be to have a real pro, and to shoot some sick skate video type jackassery, or to have it be deliberately bad and played for laughs, like Zach Galifianakis in Baskets. Instead I wanted to focus on Jason’s own distinct movement and performance. He’s a great dancer and has his own unique sense of movement—which was more appealing to me than just casting someone who could pull off some crazy and dangerous stunts. Just crossing the street in Manhattan at 4AM is scary enough. I didn’t need him also doing it while moonwalking or whatever.
It’s honestly all about Jason’s individual sense of timing and cadence. The way he talks and the way he skates are completely his own. The score was done by Paul Grimstad, who I’m a super-fan of. He read the script and started recording tracks before we ever started shooting. So we had the luxury of having an actual score while filming. Most of the skating was shot with a few of us in the back of an SUV at the crack of dawn with the back open, blasting Grimstad’s tunes, and Sean dangling out doing his thing (while I just prayed that Jason wouldn’t get run over or that Sean would drop the camera). It was a pretty ridiculous time. And adding voiceover later made it even more ridiculous.
Rail: One thing I really love about your movies is how they are very much of the present day, the exact moment they are made. Technology is usually a key component, whether it’s how live-streaming video factors into Jobe'z World or how YouTube's keyword recommendations set off the entire motion of Hellaware, but they are still extremely cinematic in how their plots revolve around a character on a journey of some kind and his physical interactions with lots of people and spaces. I'd love to hear you talk about that balance and how you see the digital world influencing your cinema or cinema generally?
Bilandic: Probably 90% of the movies I see are in the theater, and mostly on film. When I’m home I just watch YouTube. There’s an app that came out this year called Zero Views which is the greatest thing ever. It only shows you videos with no views yet. So you really have no idea what you’re in for. It could be a kid pushing a shopping cart through a supermarket in Thailand, someone attempting to play a Post Malone song on a flute, or just raw footage of some high school volleyball practice. It’s the opposite of the highly programmed or algorithmically oppressive content that comprises the bulk of our media diet. In my movies I like incorporating ridiculous YouTube streams into the plots, mostly since that’s how I entertain myself all day. Figuring out how to fully integrate the reality of technology in daily life into visual narrative storytelling is enough to make your head explode or make you want to create period pieces forever. Barely anyone can do it successfully. Eugene Kotlyarenko is so good at it, and is hilarious. I loved the last Michael Haneke movie, Happy End, and Black Mirror can be spot on. But movies are often so far from the present reality. And so many New York movies have an extra layer of cringe trying to be on some ’70s gritty retro shit. So many are shot on grainy film and then have these sharp digital titles pop up. There’s a struggle between the past and present. In Jobe’z World, we shot on HD but the titles are filmed in grainy Super 8 as a sort of spoof of that trend.
In terms of the digital world influencing cinema generally, have you seen the Paul Schrader short he did for the Venice Film Festival in 2013, Future Reloaded? It’s a minute and a half and can be found on YouTube (of course). It’s him in this neon helmet, with a Doctor Octopus-like rig, with tiny cameras protruding from him in every direction filming himself. He blabbers on about the “crisis of form” that we’re experiencing now. He wanders the High Line dropping gems like “We don’t quite know what movies are anymore. We don’t know how long they are. We don’t know how you see them. We don’t know where you see them or how you pay for them. It feels more like 1913 than 2013.” as he takes sips from a two-liter of seltzer, passing random tourists who stare at him puzzled. It raises so many major questions and is super out there. His main thesis is we have no idea what’s happening now, and it’s thrilling and scary. It’s hard to argue with that.
Rail: Oh man, I love that Paul Schrader movie so much, especially in the context of all the other films made for that same Venice piece. If there was ever a day I wish I was randomly walking down the High Line! It's so perfectly insane and unsure. Such a refreshing change from all these concrete statements about the future of cinema. It really gets at something I think about a lot as a filmmaker myself, how all this digital technology has made it possible for people like you and me to make movies without massive amounts of money or the apparatus of a studio but at the same time it seems to be destroying the thing we love. On that note, I want to ask a pretty cliché question, but only because I know you'll probably throw down something awesome that I've probably never heard of. I'm curious about your influences for Jobe'z World, cinematic or otherwise? Also, on the other end of the space-time continuum, I'm curious about what you might be working on next or what you're watching/reading/listening to these days?
Bilandic: First, I totally agree about that conundrum of being able to finally make something for dirt cheap while destroying a tradition that we’re all fans of. We’re all like Schrader now, wandering the High Line, all confused, dazed, not sure of what’s going on at all! I want to see his experimental re-edit of Dying of the Light, entitled Dark, which is only available in the MoMA, UCLA, and UT-Austin archives and has to be viewed by appointment. Is that a movie? Video art? Who knows. It’s like Jean-Pierre Léaud at the end of Irma Vep, scratching up and reassembling his big film into some avant-garde experimental re-imagining!
With Jobe’z World, I originally thought it might be a web series. But as time progressed it became clear it had to be a movie. But even then, it was a seven-day shoot done for close to zero dollars (in normal budgetary terms). Way shorter and cheaper than the average web series. In the end, it’s just shy of seventy minutes. Having that running time makes one wonder “is this a movie” even? Two other films of a similar scale that came out this year, Ted Fendt’s Classical Period and Ricky D’Ambrose’s Notes on an Appearance, are both in the early-to-mid-sixty minute range and had theatrical lives as well. So it’s becoming acceptable. I keep thinking of RKO genre pics that are all that length too, meant to be part of a double feature. There should be more double features with these movies, probably.
For influences, Liquid Sky was a big one. It’s probably my all-time favorite New York movie. It’s not beholden to realism, not part of any discernible tradition, and just bonkers. It was made by some Russian immigrants in 1982 who moved here and created their own scene and their own cinematic world and wound up influencing so much of fashion, music, and culture in the process—while also being an amazing time capsule of the period. Obviously Schrader’s Light Sleeper is another behemoth. Dafoe roaming the late night streets is so iconic, along with the grim Michael Been score. We kept thinking about it during the shoot. And Paul Morrissey’s influence is always there. I love his style of comedy. It usually involves an inarticulate handsome bonehead being passed around from loudmouth to loudmouth, having to endure never ending monologues of people blabbering about whatever’s on their mind. There’s hardly any real human connection, just a series of narcissistic people shouting in the air and not connecting with anyone. That type of shot/reverse-shot is extremely funny to me. Where it’s not the joke, but the person’s reaction to an unfunny joke or just knowing that what they’re saying is not registering. A good reaction is better to me than a good “joke” and it’s a uniquely filmic type of humor.
At the moment I’ve been collecting Euro technobilly maxi-CDs from the mid ’90s. Like lower rent versions of “Cotton Eye Joe.” Not sure if that can be channeled into anything useful. Hopefully! Also, I’m writing something new set in the world of online philosophers. Don’t wanna say too much about it, but been researching the fringes of know-it-all basement dwellers. And I hope to someday make my Berlin techno opus! Maybe this will be the year that it happens.