Q&A: Pirooz Kalayeh, director of Shoplifting from American Apparel

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On turning Tao Lin's book into a movie.

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Josh Spilker | April 7, 2011

Pirooz Kayaleh during filming the SFAA trailer / Photo by Geoffrey Hauschild

Pirooz Kayaleh during filming the SFAA trailer / Photo by Geoffrey Hauschild

Talking to Pirooz Kayaleh can get confusing real quick. He's the director of a new movie about Tao Lin's Shoplifting From American Apparel, a book and author who impart hatred or devotion on either side due to Lin's minimalist style about modern young adult life. Kayaleh obtained the rights to the book, but has set upon his own path — deciding to film the movie as a quasi-documentary, quasi-adaptation, blurring the lines between fiction, non-fiction and memoir in much the same way Lin's own book did for his life.

Casting choices include Lin himself, someone else playing Lin, Lin's real life friends playing themselves, and people playing Lin's real life friends that make appearances in the movie. Or something like that. You can see how it might be hard to keep everything straight. Which is the point.

Right now the film has been partially filmed and the Kayaleh is raising money through an IndieGoGo campaign to continue filming this summer. Kayaleh answers a few questions about casting, the Muumuu House crew, talking trees and more.

You call this movie “Part absurdist documentary and part cinematic realism” in your IndieGoGo fundraising campaign — why not do a 'straight' adaptation of the film? Why choose to do a 'meta-making of' approach with this?

I didn’t want to do a straight narrative because I had already done one and knew the limitations for an independent film done in such a way to be successfully funded in the current economic climate. By making things more flexible with the plot, I could both explore the themes involved in the book, and the interesting sub-culture that exists among the circle of virtual writers associated with the film.

In addition, I am also operating in the world of cinema, and certain elements in the novella would not translate in the same way with a traditional narrative. Unlike The Human War (which we shot last year), Shoplifting from American Apparel does not take place in one day, and has multiple moments that make-up its two year journey. In order to reflect the situational moments expressed in the novella, I could see how both documentary and narrative elements could operate in unison.

My interest in adding faux documentary and adlibs throughout the film were to creatively troubleshoot the unforeseen setbacks we might face, and simultaneously allow for the play between these elements to make a further comment on how reality television operates, and how our day-to-day realities are in fact so much of a faux-existence i.e. “A Facebook update certainly doesn’t truly reflect one’s day, especially when it’s simply an image or mask we are displaying to the public.”

In essence, my vision is to reveal the rawness of making a film, and the reality of working with human beings who are connected to an art piece in its totality – a total immersion in both the life of living the film and the elements that are portrayed for the camera, until both become as valuable as one another from a humorous, intellectual, artistic, and existential standpoint.

You have some actors with various pasts, and all don't seem to be professional actors, but are connected to the book. Noah Cicero, for example, plays 'Luis' who is actually modeled after Noah, right? How did you make your casting decisions?

It can get slightly confusing unless you have the proper list:

[Ed.: This list was originally color-coded.]
Noah Cicero plays the “actual” Noah Cicero.
Tao Lin plays the “actual” Noah Cicero.
Jordan Castro plays the “real” Tao Lin.
Brad Warner plays the “movie” Tao Lin/Sam.
James Roehl plays the “movie” Noah Cicero/Luis.

Basically, whenever we have a cinematic narrative element in the film, Brad Warner and James Roehl will play the characters from the novel. When we take a break from filming, and cut to the making of the film, the writers and actors will interact. In some cases, these interactions are written out with negative spaces, where the performers are given free reign to improvise. At other moments, the behind-the-scenes elements in the film are actually that. We will simply be filming all the time, and incorporating these various elements together.

My interest in casting Noah Cicero and Tao Lin were catalyzed because they were characters in the novella. I knew I wanted to have a documentary that showed them interacting. The choice was a natural one.

Jordan Castro was chosen because Tao Lin said he would prefer to make a reactionary video journal after watching segments of the film. He and Noah suggested that Jordan would be the ideal choice because he was friends of theirs, a literary talent, and very much interested in acting in the film. I met with Jordan via Skype, and was blown away by his professionalism, kindness, and acting skills, so I offered him the part.

Is Tao Lin involved much in the making of the film i.e. screenwriting, consultation, appearances, etc?

Tao Lin has been involved at different points throughout the process of making the film. He and I talked about the screenplay and my process of how it would come about. He was enthusiastic about the approach, and after reading the completed script, he was encouraging to see the film be made. Regarding his role in the film, he will act in several segments where he discusses his opinions on what he thinks of the film via his computer on iMovie. These will come at different moments throughout the feature.

So, yes, Tao will be in the film (which is sweet), and the film is an adaptation of his novella (equally as fantastic), but it will also be a wider team approach that involves the works of Jordan Castro, Noah Cicero, Jeffrey Brown, Bebe Zeva, Mark Parsia, Steph Shyu, Travis McFarland, Brian Lee, Brad Warner, Sonny Mishra, James Roehl, and many others. This is definitely a united effort where the shooting script has been written by myself, but where improvisations and ideas from these other artists will allow for the material to change and adapt based on their ideas and input.

And why did you choose Shoplifting from American Apparel compared to some of his other works?

I really don’t have a strong desire to make films. When I set out to make The Human War (a novel by Noah Cicero) with Thomas Henwood, I didn’t really know that was what was going to happen. Initially, that film just started with an interview with Noah. Once I sat with his novella for a while, it was difficult not to imagine it in film form. I could see it visually coming together in my mind’s eye. After about a month of thinking about the images, I propositioned Noah, and slowly helped bring the film into being with our incredible cast and crew.

Shoplifting was a similar progression. I had been reading the novella while making The Human War. I knew I wanted to make one of Tao’s works into a film. Once shooting ended on The Human War, the thought struck me that Shoplifting would be a perfect companion piece. Both novels shared the same character based on Noah – Mark and Luis – so that made the hard work of envisioning Luis’ existence easier, since I had just spent two years working on a film about him. I was also familiar with Sam’s life, since I had developed a friendship with Tao over the years, so the creation of a film visually in my mind’s eye wasn’t nearly as distant a planet as something I would adapt without any familiarity.

I was also quite taken with the ideas presented in the novella. I liked how Tao had given an honest take on the situations in his life that had been happening to him as his fame was growing. I could see how many of the moments in the book commented on how his existence was connected to the consumer culture/financial situation he was placed, and that his honesty on how he was dealing with relationships, and the way he operated in the face of things being outside a person’s control, mirrored how the world wasn’t necessarily a picture-perfect Disney environment, but something that involved more of a reactionary existence, where things and choices were made, and that these didn’t necessarily need to have a grounding in what would be the “right” action according to society’s standards, but that they were the best foot forward for someone who was truly being themselves and operating within a society that did not necessarily champion a person accepting themselves in such a way. That was a valuable perspective to me, because I could see how reflecting the beauty and destructive potential of someone living relationships in such a way – something that everyone may experience in a relationship (love or otherwise), but we may not reveal in such an honest way as Tao has done – would be engaging and make for great cinema.

(On a side note, I was also excited to make the Gmail chats come to life. I thought it would be a fun challenge to make them appealing. I had also read Ron Silliman’s take on the novel and the ideas he presented on how the novella operated with consumer culture inspired further images of how such ideas could be translated into the film.)

How many smoothies will or have been consumed in the making of this film?

I do not drink smoothies. I am sure smoothies will be drunk by some of the cast and crew when we finish shooting in June. Probably 60-70 smoothies in all. Maybe more. I do not know people’s smoothie consumption to answer that accurately.

What's the deal with the talking trees? Don't remember those from the book…

The “talking trees” are from The Lord of the Rings. One of the actors makes a joke that my use of having Gmail chats through the film will be as boring as having the talking trees speaking slowly in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. That’s why in the film you will suddenly see the Gmail chats turn into other things besides people in our attempt to poke fun at the idea that they will be boring, but also to add another layer of dimension to how reading text can be delivered into a film that’s entertaining and still tells the story.

How did you handle so many 'wordy'
scenes/online scenes, like the Gmail chats?

I just picked the juiciest parts. I also have the Gmail chats bounce
back and forth with other parts in the film, so that no one would get
too bored reading. There is also the whole “talking trees” and other
animated elements to help give it a more video game aspect.

Will there be any live/captured shoplifting scenes or will all those be simulated?

I can’t answer that question at the moment.

You also did the movie for Noah Cicero's The Human War, whom as mentioned above, is connected to Tao and the Muumuu House crowd. What about this style or this group is interesting to you?

I like reading things that represent reality as it is. Sometimes this can be a happy moment. Sometimes it’s depressing. Sometimes it just is what it is.

I also like the questions that these writers are asking about society, being human, and how art can be created. Tao Lin is definitely asking questions both about how art can be created and presented, and also how our society, or his existence operates. In some cases, this is done with complete candidness. His honest re-tellings in Shoplifting definitely speak to me about what it is to have truth in the world.

I guess Tao, Noah, and others remind me of the Knights of the Round Table. That’s what great art does sometimes. It echoes the hope and possibility of what something like Camelot was, or how America, or the world, could be. The questions that are asked in their works, and other writers, such as Brad Warner and Jordan Castro, bring me closer to a sense of who I am in society, and for that, I feel gratitude and a sense of belonging.

I am also a fan of art that broadens or does away with our conceptions of what is qualitatively good and bad. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, Pablo Picasso’s Les Mademoiselles d’Avignon, Kurt Cobain’s Nevermind – each of these artists challenges what would be considered “good” – or does away with this concept altogether – at their respective time in history, and I respect and value that the same is being done by the writers involved with Shoplifting.

What's the tentative schedule for the movie and a release date?

We will finish shooting from June 6-20, 2011. Then we will start submitting to film festivals in September. Our hope is to make some of these festivals. After releasing at some of them in 2012, or when the festival season is done, we will put out the film on Netflix and iTunes, etc.

We have no distributor as of yet. Who knows? If we have a good enough film, maybe someone will want to put it out at a couple art theaters. I have no idea.

What should people do if they're super-excited about the prospect of this movie? How can they help?

If you’re in LA, you can come help out on the set. You could make smoothies or help with lights, etc.

If you want to get a tee shirt and show support, or buy a DVD, that would help us raise funds for the film. We’re at about 7K right now, but we need something like 20K to make the film in June. We’re hoping people will dig the shirts and all enough to make a donation on IndieGoGo.

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