Exclusive Interview: David Spaltro of Things I Don’t Understand

Inside Pulse Movies has had a long relationship with indie director David Spaltro.

Born and raised in Jersey City, NJ growing up with a love for film and passion for storytelling, David studied theater and writing at his high school and was commissioned in 2001 to shoot and edit a documentary about a group of teenage performing artists from the US who were taking part of a festival in Germany. He moved to NYC to attend a film program at the School of Visual Arts and graduated with a BFA in directing in 2005. After graduation he traveled and worked abroad in Europe and Asia. While teaching and designing a language program in South Korea in 2006, David wrote the first draft of what would become “…Around”, based on some of his personal experiences going to school in NYC, which he also produced and financed.

We interviewed him for his debut feature which caught many people’s eyes, …Around: Embrace the Fall, and gave it both formal and informal reviews.

We were excited for his next feature, Things I Don’t Understand, especially after the First Look debuted. And now David has agreed for some interviewing shenanigans with us.

David, one thing I do have to ask first. You financed your first feature by using credit cards. Did you spend another $200,000 or so on credit cards for this film like you did for “…Around” or did you finance this in a more, ahem, traditional way?

First off, they’ll never let me have credit cards again. Ever. I’m fairly certain after the last few years I could become a multi-millionaire and my credit score would still look like a batting average. No, for this film I basically tried some of the more traditional methods while living in West Hollywood in the Summer and Fall of 2009, taking the script around to producers and having meetings with talent to help with financing. The script got great feedback from those who read it, but, especially with the economy at the time and current trends, it was still too risky for them. It wasn’t “Transformers” or “GI: Joe” and didn’t have any sparkly vampires. So, not deterred and knowing any glimmer I had from “…Around” was dying out and would need one more film to validate my abilities, I was going to figure out a way to go back to NYC and do it my way. I basically came back and worked three jobs at a time for a year and lived off pennies, saving up every dollar for a year while developing the script, hiring a team and casting the project. I basically was able to raise half of the budget through working and saving money and the rest of it was pre-selling a NYC tax credit to investors who would give us the money and know it would be given back with interest without having to worry if we sold the film. So, in a roundabout way, I once again completely self-financed a film but not with credit card magic, just a lot of sweat, blood and perseverance with a dash of sacrifice. The night before our first table read when we were still searching for financing I’d had a long conversation with a director friend in Los Angeles going over my project, my options and when I told him my back-up plan of self-financing and tax credit to stick by my actors and team and pull it off at a 200k budget or under, he said in the politest way, “David… but who ARE these people to you?” And as we had a great reading with all this talent sitting across from me at that table, knowing if I could just give them the blank canvas what they’d all paint, I realized they were family. Artistic family. I was inspired and ready to go to bat for them all one more time.

Speaking of your first film, what did making “…Around” teach you that you implemented in this film?

I think I learned everything I know about really making a film and telling stories from my time on “…Around”. Telling a story from concept through script and production and post and how each part can help shape the story and the vision. I learned the value of showing a script and tweaking it as well as collaborating with my actors and crew but still being strong about my vision and what story. As someone who also edits his own films I learned a way to maximize time and performances on set by keeping mental notes on each take and sometimes, instead of doing a full take, having actors go back to lines or try something in the middle of a scene, almost editing the film a bit on-set. As an editor and almost puzzle master I know what I need and know when I’ve gotten what I need for a scene to work as well as having some wiggle room for alterations or changes. This really helps when you’re shooting with a tighter budget or time schedule but I think also doesn’t make the editing process as unnecessarily long or defeatist as it can be on other productions. I learned the value of sound, music and score and how that can add so much to a finished piece. I began collaborating with my “…Around” sound mixer Carlos” Storm” Martinez and composer Vita Tanga of CreativeMixing.com in pre-production and they once again knocked it out the park. I learned to trust my instincts and my gut on “…Around” and really tried to bring that to this project because at the end of the day my name goes on this film as a writer, director and producer and I’m responsible for whatever the finished product is. I take that responsibility very seriously and honoring the work of everyone that puts in time on my project, to make sure it’s finished right for them, as well.

What lessons did you learn on this film that you didn’t learn from your first film as a writer and as a director?

I think I’ve learned the value of working with good people and how much that applies not just to talent and ability but also personality and energy, their work ethic. I think also people you can trust, especially in who you work with as a producer. Lee Gillentine, who I worked with on my first, had taken a back seat for most of the production but stepped up when another producer flamed out and left us with a bit of a mess of undone paperwork and unsent checks. Having loyalty and a good work ethic in a team is essential when you’re not just the writer and director of a film but also another producer. You can only spin so many plates and do so many tasks competently. I think adding another producer to the team of Lee and myself so I can step away from that role in the future, while still maintaining creative quality control would be essential to not burning myself out.

What inspired “Things I Don’t Understand” creatively?

It actually pre-dates “…Around”, starting out as a one-act play/half-written script that would have potentially been my thesis film in my final year at SVA. I first came up with the scenes/ideas of Violet and Sara in the hospice room and their conversations in December 2003 as a sort of meditation of spirituality, life and death as seen through the eyes of a burned out atheist looking for a miracle and a young, optimistic girl dealing with her eventual painful death. I didn’t have the experience as a filmmaker or know how to tell it right at twenty-one, so I shelved it and a few years later. When figuring out what story would be my first feature, I once again realized I just wasn’t ready to tell it. It was during the fall of 2008 when I was dealing with some fall-out from “…Around”, recently losing someone close to me and a few other dark things that I stumbled on some notes and pages. The writing was unexpected and purely a cathartic exercise with no motive in mind. I never intended it to be anything at all, especially not my 2nd feature, but it all just poured out of me as if it had always been there, waiting to come out. I began fleshing out the world with other characters and subplots based on experiences and people I’d met in the previous few years, still anchoring it around the relationship of these two individuals and their important and honest conversations in a place surrounded by death and transition. I re-developed the character of Violet more towards the idea of working with Molly Ryman again and giving her a chance to show range I saw potential in from her work in “…Around” and reading a few reviews of the film that wondered what she’d do with a different kind of role if given the chance.

You worked with Molly Ryman again on this project. What was it like working with her again, especially after such a tremendous performance in “…Around” in your debut? Did anything change in your working relationship with her the second time around, considering she had a handful of credits between that film and this one?

I was excited at the opportunity to work with someone I saw great potential in who could flex the range of their ability and be able to give them both that challenge and opportunity. There’s also a really interesting strength and beauty about Molly as a person that goes far deeper than any exterior favorable genetic traits. She has a good heart that was the key in bringing the character of Violet to life, warts and all, but still keeping her human and likeable. As for working with her again on this project, it was a completely different experience than “…Around” as the amount of time working on it, as well as her time on set was far more than that effort. The physical transformation she had to allow herself to go through and the confronting of some pretty dark issues was another that I’m sure at time was quite painful and stressful for her, not to mention just the pressure of carrying a film and rising to a challenge she wanted, but at the end of the day was still a challenge. I learned an interesting lesson on this project that when you build a close relationship with someone, friendship and working, how it can sometimes be a double-edged sword. I think the same things that can benefit the work can also end up causing added stress as lines and roles get blurred. If you have two creatively passionate people working long hours, confronting personal issues in the work and pushing themselves harder and harder, sometimes feelings can get hurt and other issues can arise or bleed over from personal to professional and vice versa. The odd part is these difficult circumstances come out of the same intimacy and understanding that allow you to work sometimes quite harmoniously or be able to understand one another acutely, without explanation and hopefully trust each other. Whether this kind of friction is avoidable or whether it hurts or benefits the work is not something I feel comfortable being able to make a judgment on. Overall I think the original intention of giving Molly a chance to stretch, confront demons and bring a very damaged, difficult character to life and make her still be loved and redeemed was a success in the story I wanted to tell. I don’t think anyone could watch her work in this film, held up against any of her previous work, and not see she’s capable to great things when given the chance, trusts her abilities and has the right guidance and person pushing her.

What about the rest of the cast?

I was also blessed to work with a host of new individuals on this project including Grace Folsom who really forms the heart and soul of this story. Even at her young age Grace just has this raw and natural ability and makes it effortless as a director. She’s probably my favorite actor I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with and her positive energy, work ethic and embracing of the writing and the work is second to none. Aaron Mathias had a difficult task in playing an understated and subdued role, really having to take a leap of faith and trust me in underplaying the character of “Parker” as a slow burn until more of his story and feelings are revealed. His trust in me as director and my interpretation of the character really gave him something different and interesting in his body of work, but also paid off favorably for his performance and the finished film. Lynn Justinger is another amazingly consistent actress who was so great to have around on set I added or reworked scenes while shooting to keep bringing her back. She’s intelligent, versatile and just has a consistency in her work that makes it a joy to cut. Eleanor Wilson is painfully sweet, funny and talented making everything about her work human and working with Lisa Eichhorn, a famed actress, former teacher and great friend/mentor was a dream come true. Any director would be blessed to create something with these individuals.

Right now you’re currently in the same position as you were with “…Around” in that the film is completed and the festival circuit awaits. What lessons from your first film have you been applying to your second time through in the process? And are you feeling the same, as you were the first time you explored this avenue?

I think the lesson I learned about thinking outside the box and creatively coming up with marketing ideas stays the same. Overall I’m not juggling a bajillion credit card bills and now have a rolodex of contacts and goodwill from “…Around” that I didn’t have the first time. I don’t think the road to distribution will be easier, but I think I’m more comfortable navigating it and I definitely have a few aces that I didn’t have the first time. Making this film was a chance to show that the first film and its critical success wasn’t a fluke and that we can also be commercially (realistically, of course) successful while still working on a similar budget and in similar terrain. I’m looking forward to exploring the festival circuit, big and small, and exploring all kinds of opportunities to screen and share this film to audiences.

You mentioned a while back before production that while you got “…Around” onto PBS it was more of a personal journey that at times you didn’t get to enjoy as much as you did. How would you describe “Things” as a follow up to this? Is it your attempt to make a less personal film and enjoy it more?

Oddly enough “Things” is far more personal than “…Around” and in many ways the most personal and revealing artistic thing I’ve ever done… it just also happens to have dancing vaginas and stoned French punk rockers in it. The themes in “Things” and the eventual finished film that came out of it are deeply personal to me and probably a summation of everything I’ve ever wanted to say. It builds on my ideas from “…Around” on family and making home, but adds a more adult twist to it as well as the nature of God, growing up, faith and trying to be a good person. I’m a pretty devout atheist and while I have no interest in any rituals or “sky bullies”, I’m a pretty big humanist and believe in the beauty of religion and spirituality. I love some of the poetry of them and philosophies but don’t feel the need to set any dogma on it. I think what I try to express in “Things” is that we don’t know the answers to all these deeply important questions, the journey to even understanding them is what we call existence and that any answers are irrelevant now anyway. We need to find faith in ourselves and the love for the people and world around us so that we can bring better things to this life and be at peace with it all and however it works out.

In all honesty, it was an extremely difficult process to make this film personally and professionally, probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. First and foremost, just coming off of the long haul of making and distributing “…Around” and the financial fall-out form that endeavor was it’s own fight. Then developing this film and putting it together while raising money in a dying economy, saturated market and seeing it through, pushing myself and my people to do more while dealing with personal issues goes on at the time made this perhaps the hardest journey I’ve ever had to walk. I think I enjoyed the set experience and making of “…Around” better, despite the long and arduous post and distribution road, probably simply because I was younger and didn’t think it was going to work out to begin with. With “Things”, other than several issues that arose while producing it and new kinds of obstacles, I was also pushing myself harder and to do more, to take it a level further. I’ve probably never worked harder at anything than in making this film and telling this story the way I really wanted to, making sure my vision of Violet and her journey came through complete and whole. I don’t want to get dramatic but there’s just a huge chunk of my heart and soul in every frame of this film and my whole life philosophy. After the last year nothing really scares or deters me. Despite being a bit broken and exhausted when we wrapped I’m more determined and headstrong than ever. In the future I won’t ever second guess myself and know I’ll get done whatever I need to, regardless of what balls are dropped or what issues arise because I have more than just faith in myself I have the support and faith of a great group of people I met and worked with on this project to push me to make sure their work is seen and appreciated.

Is the goal to get “Things” into theatres for a proper run? Or are you looking less towards the theatrical distribution model and looking more into alternative methods of distribution i.e. Video on Demand, et al?

I think it would be a bit ridiculous to imagine that we’ll have a large theatrical run with this film and I think even in some fantastical universe where a distribution company would offer us that deal and puts adds in the paper it wouldn’t make sense. I think at most a limited theatrical run in a few art-house theaters in NYC or Los Angeles before being put on DVD and then running the gamut of internet, VOD and TV options would suit a project like ours best financially and also allow us the widest audience to see us. That’s always my and should be every filmmakers goal right after telling the story you want to tell, to make sure people and the most amount can see it. There’s something great about watching your film with an audience in a theater and I think that’s where a nice festival run also comes into play, to make contacts and collect those palms and tour the flick. It’s like an indie rock band touring the country for two years and playing amazing shows, building a fan base so when they finally release an album it sells well all over the place without the need for giant billboards or magazine adds. I think married with the goodwill and favorable response from “…Around”, which to me is like a punk rock demo compared to this new film, we’ll add to our fan base and critical appeal and use that to move forward with future projects. There will be a day when you’ll see a David Spaltro written and directed film in theaters across the country, but for right now I’m just happy to tell the stories that I’m passionate about with the people I care about and have people see and (hopefully) enjoy them.

How did the filmmaking process change for you, personally, of making films between your debut and now second film? Would you say that you’ve necessarily gotten better at the process by virtue of making another film, and having the experience from “…Around” to guide you?

I think I learned on the last one and solidified for myself on this one exactly what my job entails. Being a director is being a leader and is simply having a consistent vision and being able to communicate that to every member of production and your cast. You basically have to answer questions and make decisions, which is impossible to know if you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve in a scene or with your story. Having a vision doesn’t mean you don’t collaborate or in take ideas, you hire a great team of artists who bring and add to your vision but they can’t do that unless you communicate exactly what that is clearly and also keep them all on the same page so they don’t go in separate directions and have a hodgepodge of creativity that’s just a mess. I’ve found that approaching your crew and cast with confidence and humility at the same time generates the best results. If you make people feel like they are part of something and not just punching a clock or doing the same old job then they will push themselves and give you their best work, they’ll trust you and go into battle because they know you’re genuinely present and working with them to tell the same story. You gain their trust and their respect and then allow them just enough freedom to bring their creativity to your story and vision for it.

What’s next after this?

After doing two feature films back to back that I wrote, directed and produced from conception to distribution over the last 5 years, I’m planning to take a year of just writing and developing a few ideas and projects that have been in my head for awhile. Once “Things” is on the festival circuit and locked with distribution I wanted to refill the tank, do some traveling and spend time with friends and take some time for myself. I’m also going to try my hand at some light producing work in helping a few others get their projects off the ground. I’m helping produce a friend and fellow SVA alum, Vance Tucker’s new web series “Caught In the Act” that’s in pre-prod and fundraising stage, gearing up for a March shoot and will be starring “…Around” alum Marcel Torres and some talent from “Things”. I’m also helping produce a first feature scripted by an actress Jenna Laurenzo who’s in “Things”, has a web-series she created and funded out called “Parker and Maggie” and is multi-talented and ambitious. I’m working on a few scripts, building a slate for my production company with Lee Gillentine to take back to Los Angeles later this coming year. There’s a small, intimate feature I’d love to work with Grace Folsom and Lynn Justinger on at some point too (my final NYC love-letter) and an adaptation of a book called “Sex & Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons” that’s always been a bit of a dream project for me. I’ve also been approached to write a book by someone at a publish house that’s half an auto-biographical, collection of NYC tales and half how-to-make-an-independent film book that I’ll be working on next year. I might make it a pop-up book or if its truly about my life it’ll end up being a choose-your—own-adventure. Trust me, even in an off year I’ve got an agenda and a lot to say.