King Kelly: Interview With Director Andrew Neel
Having seen some of his output, this writer can safely say that Andrew Neel is one of the most interesting…
Having seen some of his output, this writer can safely say that Andrew Neel is one of the most interesting new filmmaking voices to arrive on the scene and is here to stay- having directed the likes of Darkon, which explores the world of the LARPer and Alice Neel, a fascinating look at the life of his Grandmother, the famous painter, Neel manages to create films that not only raise questions but also entertain, with engaging and very human narratives- be they subjects he points a camera at or something he constructs.
He is one quarter of New York Film Production outfit SeeThink Films- one of SeeThink’s latest films, King Kelly, is Andrew’s first narrative feature and was a hit at SXSW which has enjoyed huge success.
Andrew was kind enough to take up his time to discuss the philosophical layers of King Kelly, how they managed to shoot the film, the similarities between Documentary and Fiction, and some very interesting upcoming projects…
So, Andrew, how did you break into the industry initially?
The first thing we did at SeeThink (films, a production company run by Neel as well as Ethan Palmer, Luke Meyer and Tom Davis) was a documentary called Darkon (which looked at the world of LARP), and that won the SXSW audience award in 2006… Paramount bought the remake rights- which is still in play- so that landed us in [the] mainstream [properly]. I got an agent from there, we made three more documentaries, and now King Kelly is our first feature.
What would you say was the inspiration behind King Kelly?
I feel like it was a number of things that amalgamated into that character. I think that I came up with the character before I came up with the story- I was aware of this mass societal narcissism… the fact that we watch reality TV shows about what we do every day… this kind of navel-gazing, this user-generated [swarm] of information that is just overtaking our consciousness- I felt there was an interesting evolution in the concept of self in this new world, and I wanted to create the most narcissistic, self-centred, self-serving ‘generation me’ character that I could. And that was King Kelly.
I [originally] conceived the movie in a very different style, but we had done some research a few years earlier on a documentary series, where a part of it was on Porn and the Porn industry, and that was when we came across Cam Girls. That was a fascinating phenomenon, and all that amalgamated into what [King Kelly] is. In terms of other films that informed me, I’d say Natural Born Killers, Man Bites Dog, even Thelma and Louise. So there was a lot kicking around in my head, but really the impetus of the film was a philosophical idea that I wanted to investigate, and I built the narrative around that.
So when you set out to make the film, was it more about making a statement or did you try to focus more on crafting this very tight and contained story?
I wanted to do both- you want something to be entertaining, and if it’s not entertaining it’s very hard for people to pay attention to it for long enough, especially in this day and age, in order [for the audience] to get anything out of it philosophically. I didn’t want to make a statement as much as I wanted to raise questions- I don’t believe in thesis-driven filmmaking.
I don’t think Kelly is all bad; I think a lot of people like to hate Kelly, but there’s a human being buried underneath that monster. I hoped people would leave the theatre asking [themselves] what all these new technologies have done to us, and to be aware of that dialogue in their head. You’ve got to ask questions, not give answers, so… the simple answer is I tried to balance [story and statement]
Correct me if I’m wrong, but you shot the whole film on an iPhone?
I’d say twenty percent of it was [shot] on iPhone- there’s a Popular Mechanics article [which shows] a rig we created, if you can call it a rig… The camera we used [as well as the iPhone] was a Canon ELPH, which is cheaper than an iPhone but it had characteristics in the video which made it easier to deal with in post, and it looked better- one of the major problems with [the iPhone model we used] is that they don’t have stabilisation. Apparently the [the new model] does now!
The rig we designed had the iPhone and the camera built onto it, so when [Louisa Krause, playing the eponymous Kelly] was doing user-generated footage, she could actually see her face the way you’d normally be able to, because it was that kind of reflexive pool of narcissism that I wanted [Louisa] to have when she was making the videos.
In that case, if every actor using the rig is essentially the director and cameraman themselves. How did you end up blocking or discussing a performance with them?
That was one of the most exciting ways of making the film, that you’re dealing with a new medium, an in a weird way it’s an actor’s dream because you don’t have the giant apparatus that is the camera moving around- it’s part of what is happening in the scene, so that immediately creates a new environment for an actor.
In terms of blocking and rehearsal, I approached it in a very standard [way]. And part of that rehearsal [process] was with the DoP- we were both talking about where the shot should be and what we were thinking about it and how the actor should perform and operate the shot. So the rehearsals had an element of cinematography built into them, which was cool.
For me watching it, despite the way you’re telling the story with this new generation and technology, it is essentially the classic trope of ‘everything going wrong over the course of a day’- you have elements of morality tales and classic literature. It felt like Chester Himes’ novel A Rage in Harlem’…
I haven’t read that. But it’s like I was saying, I needed to find a fun story that could turn horribly wrong. (Doug Liman’s 1999 film) Go is a good example of a movie like that. I thought it made sense for the immediacy of the medium- if it was [told] of the course of a couple of days, it would start to feel contrived, like someone had edited it together, and King Kelly functions like you’re watching a Live Stream in a way.
When Mike (Roberts, the Screenwriter) and I started talking about how we were going to organise this story, we thought a story [that takes place] in a contained period of time would not only make it exciting but also worked very well for the medium that we were trying to emulate.
I wanted to use the pop culture language of violence- in the same way that Natural Born Killers does- to then make a comment on those [sort of] things, as part of the narrative and stylistic approach. So that probably made the story grow up into what it [eventually] became.
What is the state of the film now? You got great reviews at SXSW! Are there going to be more festivals, will it be streaming worldwide?
We did our theatrical premiere in New York, [which] was very small, then went straight to iTunes domestically. But right now we’re trying to sell International rights, so you guys in The UK don’t have to torrent it. So that’s where it’s at right now- we have a very good sales company and I think we’ll make an international sale soon. It has been pirated all over the place, which is a nightmare, but there’s nothing you can do!
As an Independent filmmaker, the kind of stuff you’re doing like King Kelly wouldn’t necessarily be picked up by Hollywood mainstream, so what’s your opinion on the general state of Cinema?
Actually, in comparison to most independent films, in a lot of ways King Kelly has more appeal because… it has a very fast-paced narrative, and I think a lot of people in the business felt there was potentially a huge reach there. But we weren’t able to convert on that, [though] interestingly enough the film has given me more in-roads beyond the indie world- I’ve been asked by a high-profile filmmaker to do a remake and a legendary producer in New York is producing my next film, so this crazy, aggressive film that I made has given me a lot of access- that’s been my journey with [King Kelly]. I’ve always had one foot in and one foot out as far as Indie and Industry is concerned.
What’s happened with the Film World, as most people know, is that Independent and Mainstream films are getting further and further apart- the budgets are getting much smaller on the indie side, and getting much bigger on the Hollywood side. So the situation you have now, as an independent filmmaker, as that you’re being asked to do a lot more with a lot less. And not only [that, but] you then have an incredibly difficult time just getting your film into a decent festival, much less selling it, because there are so many movies being made.
The whole proliferation of really nice cameras and cheap linear editing systems has made the industry more available, but that’s also made the whole independent film business more choked for cash and more competitive. It’s an interesting time to be making films and it’s a very exciting time [as well]. It’s a competitive and a challenging environment to work in.
How have you found moving from documentaries like Darkon or Alice Neel to the likes of doing narrative features like King Kelly? Is there a big contrast or is it kind of the same?
For me it’s really the same. [With] the films I’ve made I’ve always started with an idea that I want to discuss. In the case of Alice Neel, of course it was different because it was a biography about my grandmother (the legendary painter), [but] even there there was an idea I wanted to discuss. I think I make films in order to investigate ideas through stories, not just to tell stories- I wouldn’t call myself just a storyteller. Everyone call themselves that, [but] that’s not how I think about it.
It just doesn’t feel different to me to work on a documentary and work on a fiction- obviously a fiction happens in a very contained period of time and there’s all these obvious differences, but in terms of working with human beings, be it an actor or a subject you’re shooting, you are there in some way to try to gain access to some part of that human being that you want to show the World. In fiction it’s a person you’ve created and in Documentary it’s a person that’s there, but either way it’s a very human, interactive, collaborative process.
My Documentaries tend to be more constructed, but they’re not direct cinema style, which means that the filmmakers’ hands are more involved in manipulating that reality in order to create [their own sort of] reality or a discussion. That’s what interesting about the medium today, is playing with these lines of real and unreal, which is what we as human beings are going through in large part.
What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects you can discuss?
There’s a film Christine Vachon at Killer Films is developing with us called The House of Trammell- It’s set in 2008 during the crash- it’s a Violent Shakespearean story of a ‘One Percent’ family that lost all its money and has to split what they have left. I think, like King Kelly, it shares a commentary on American Greed, on American Gluttony and I’m excited to make it. We’re attaching cast to it and hopefully shoot it later this summer.
Then there’s the remake- a director who saw King Kelly was expanding his production company and really wanted me to remake this film he has the rights to, so that’s also in play. But nothing’s announced, so all these projects are in development.
I produced two films that were at Tribeca (Lance Edmand’s Bluebird and Stand Clear of The Closing Doors), so I’ve dipped my fingers into Producing and I’d like to keep doing that, I enjoy it. Also, there’s another documentary that SeeThink is developing that hopefully will shoot very soon. We’re a film Collective and we’re trying to do a lot. There’s a television show that’s an adaptation of King Kelly that we’re pitching right now, which is exciting… we’re doing a lot of different things.