The Only Luxury: An Interview with Ted Fendt

ted fendt short stay

By Dan Sullivan

For the past few years, Ted Fendt has been one of the busiest under-the-radar figures in film exhibition in New York: a projectionist at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, he is also the city’s go-to live-subtitler of rare, unsubtitled prints of French films, and ranks among its most active moviegoers. But his contributions to film culture extend beyond the local scene to the online sphere, where he has become an essential translator of texts by Jean-Luc Godard, Luc Moullet, Eric Rohmer, and Jean-André Fieschi, among others. He has also produced new English subtitles for a number of films by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet (having taught himself German in order to so) and co-edited the catalogue for an upcoming retrospective of their films to tour the US later in 2016.

Finally, he is himself a filmmaker quite unlike any other. His short films are uncompromising yet spendthrift miniatures shot on 16mm—and, in the case of his most recent output, blown up to 35mm for exhibition. Broken Specs (2012), Travel Plans (2013), and Going Out (2015) all follow the faintly absurdist travails of a group of ostensibly unremarkable denizens of Haddonfield, NJ, the mesmerizingly anonymous suburb of Philadelphia where Fendt grew up. The elegance of these episodic works is matched only by the precision with which Fendt magnifies the humour and emotional texture of a socially awkward young man whose glasses are broken at a party (Broken Specs), a UPS employee considering taking a trip (Travel Plans), and a girl going on a date to see the recent remake of Robocop (Going Out). The films’ non-professional performers are pure presence, and their opacity accentuates the air of spontaneity and mystery. These cipher-like figures float from one encounter to another, telling and retelling stories, attending house parties, drinking cheap draught beers in dive bars with Big Buck Hunter-type arcade games clamouring in the background. Surrealist flourishes—impenetrable narcolepsy is a recurring motif, as are social interactions so brief they can’t be considered conversations—are grounded through a sneakily rigorous materialism born equally of the means at Fendt’s disposal and his staunchly upheld preference for shooting in lived-in domestic spaces with a skeleton crew, mostly natural light, and direct sound. Fendt’s austere style and laconic writing aims at a dramatic relaxedness, and accordingly the films feel slight and charming rather than cold and cerebral.

His feature-length debut, Short Stay, which just received its world premiere in the Berlinale Forum, steadfastly continues the project of Fendt’s short-form work. The taut 61-minute feature follows Mike (Mike MacCherone, a key member of Fendt’s troupe), a listless Haddonfield pizza delivery guy who offers to fill a sublet for a smarmy sort-of friend (Mark Simmons) in Philadelphia and pick up his shifts at a walking-tour company. From there the shaggy-dog narrative unfolds segment by segment, and in each leg of Mike’s anti-journey Fendt subtly plays with his limitations as a leading man, almost completely dispensing with dramatic psychology in favour of a documentary-like attentiveness to gesture and openness to chance. Along the way Mike figures into an ineptly pursued romance with Liz (Elizabeth Soltan, the star of Going Out), and becomes subject to a series of somewhat failed attempts at kindness made by Mark’s spurned girlfriend Marta (Marta Sicinska) and her roommate Meg (Meaghan Lydon). Fendt renders these incidents—whether they be practical discussions about where Mike can spend the night or all-too-familiarly limp party scenes that throw Mike’s disconnectedness from his own milieu into harsh relief—with a deliberation, assurance, and sensitivity to forms of everyday inconsideration that evidence his status as an unapologetic formalist, sly humorist, and unlikely moralist.

Short Stay manages to contain multitudes despite initially seeming unassuming and sparse, unexpectedly locating a wholly new and refreshingly unsentimental brand of humanism within the mundane fabric of the kinds of lives that cinema hasn’t hitherto deigned to depict. Fendt carefully bypasses any immediate resemblances to mumblecore, instead drawing from his own unique host of influences (Straub-Huillet, Moullet, Rohmer, Henry King, sundry others) to arrive at a way of working and a constellation of themes and tones that has become his and his alone.

Cinema Scope: What was the impetus to make a feature following the three shorts?

Ted Fendt: In practical terms, the methodology was already in place, and I had a crew with whom I’d made three films already and with whom I could work in the minimal economy in which we’ve always worked. And I had a group of friends, my cast, who were more than willing to be involved. Like the shorts, it started with a fascination with someone—in this case, my friend Mike, which goes back to Broken Specs. I wanted to hone in on a couple aspects of his personality—his way of carrying himself and the way he talks—which I wanted to look at in greater depth than I could in a short. I started to develop the film out of the urge to spend more time with him, with his character.

Scope: What is the origin of your interest in non-actors?

Fendt: I write for specific people, basically. I happen to have this group of friends, originally just three or four people I knew from high school in whom I became interested and with whom I began to think I could make a film. This grew to include their friends in Philadelphia. It made the most sense to just film them instead of having actors play them. Also, if I were to work with actors, they would come up with interpretations of the characters, which would essentially function to telegraph to the audience, through gesture and vocal intonation and so forth, how it should relate to them at any given moment. This would orient the audience in a way that doesn’t particularly interest me. Non-actors don’t have that tendency because they lack the training to do that, so it makes the film a bit more open to unexpected things. If there are indeed characters in my movies as opposed to documentary images of people, it’s due to and stems from a scene-by-scene composite of behaviour that differs, sometimes wildly. Some of this resides in the material I’m giving them, but much of it emerges from inconsistencies in the performances. This yields characters whom I’m discovering as we’re shooting and editing.

Scope: What you ask of your performers seems closer in spirit to the Bressonian notion of the model than the Straubian variant.

Fendt: There’s more of a range: with Bresson, all the actors are on the same level, and Mike is a kind of Bressonian figure. I push for flatter line readings from him. But then on the other end of the spectrum there’s Mark, who’s almost like a type from a ’30s film, like a villain.

Scope: In your work there are innately charismatic figures—like Rob (Rob Fini), who almost seems like a movie star by comparison to the others—but we spend most of this film with the automaton-like Mike. You seem interested in playing with this tension between people with inherent allure and people who tend toward a cooler, flatter affect.

Fendt: Yeah, I’m trying to figure out how to present those aspects of their personalities and who they are.

Scope: Could you talk about your relationship with celluloid? Your preference for it is obvious, but it seems notable that your day job is as a film projectionist.

Fendt: Working with and on film is always what I’ve envisioned, and there’s never been any other option in my mind. Working as a projectionist perhaps reinforces that. Handling film reinforces that it’s something that one can relatively easily screen, and I’ve never thought I might have to work otherwise. But I’ve lived and worked through the relatively rapid transition from film to digital projection. When I started working full-time as a projectionist five years ago, it was 90% 35mm film for release prints, and then two years later it was the opposite—very little film, apart from repertory programming. I believe that this had nothing to do with aesthetics; it mostly had to do with a few people who could profit massively from forcing theatres to adopt digital projection and buy expensive new projectors. And in a few years, if it hasn’t already started to happen, the same theatres will be forced to buy new 4K digital projectors. The justification and motivation for this was and will remain financial rather than aesthetic. Not just as a shooting format but also as a projection format, watching a film print is objectively a different experience. It doesn’t just have to do with me working as a projectionist, but also as a repertory filmgoer who mainly watches old films and does care about the format—that’s the particular aesthetic experience I like having and that I’d like to give to other people.

Scope: And there’s the very significant gesture on your part—almost Kubrickian, considering the percentage it comprises of your budget—to strike a 35mm print.

Fendt: It’s insane! It’s the only luxury. Everything else that went into making this movie was not expensive. Even if I’m spending basically everything I earn over the course of a year—and more, at this point—to finish the film, I understand that filmmaking is something that is expensive and that’s just how it is. And I think it’d be more interesting if someone were to take three years to make a movie without compromising aesthetically and then printing it on film, as opposed to someone who spends a year on a film and then, for commercial reasons, they screen it digitally. I can’t see that as not being a compromise somehow—if you’re working on film, that is. There are of course people making interesting work digitally.

Scope: If Short Stay gets picked up for distribution, are you going to insist that it be distributed on 35mm?

Fendt: I didn’t make the movie for commercial reasons, and I didn’t borrow money to make it, so I don’t need to pay investors back. If the movie is never distributed, I’m not turning a loss. I spent the money the way you’d spend money to take a vacation. I have neither need nor motivation to get it back, and I don’t necessarily need it to make my next project. So, insisting on it being distributed on 35mm is severely limiting, and I’m still mulling it over, but I’m not convinced I should or need to project it digitally for the sake of having more screenings.

Scope: You’re a scholar of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s work. Your films are parameter-oriented in a way that seems rather Straubian—do you think about Straub-Huillet in relation to your own practice?

Fendt: Sure, I think about them, and everyone else who has tried to work in a different model than the standard industrial production model. First, it’s very important that when people make films there be a harmony between one’s financial means and the aesthetic. You budget for what you need and don’t spend extravagant amounts of money on things you don’t need. Our economy of working was very much in that vein. Spend the extra money on the specific lens that you know you need, even if it’s more expensive, and then cut money somewhere else. There’s also a number of formal parameters that I set prior to shooting, some of which I suppose could be related to my interest in Straub-Huillet. These were more or less based on the idea that I’d be removing creativity on my part—any kind of interpretation I would be imposing on how we’d shoot a scene—and better allow for the audience to see the characters and spaces without any kind of cinematic inflection. These parameters often backed me into a corner. We shot the entire movie with one prime lens, which was the most basic, normal prime lens there is. It’s what Bresson used for everything, and Godard after the ’80s…And I wanted to shoot every scene from one camera position, which is a Straubian idea that they started exploring around the time of Class Relations (1984): shooting every scene from one position, which they called the “strategic point,” so there would be a coherence in the way the space was represented. And we decided never to cut within a scene, so each scene would end up being a sequence shot. We found that even working with one lens and one camera setup we could still shoot coverage, do a shot-reverse shot, etc. I like the coherence of space that this allowed for, and the resultant surprises in composition and performance.

Also, about 90% of the movie is direct sound. No one took that further than Straub-Huillet. I don’t think we were quite as rigorous in that regard, but it’s also something I like a lot about early sound films, particularly comedies, where the sound takes the abstract silent images and grounds them in a documentary reality. In Fatty Arbuckle’s sync-sound shorts for instance, they veer in a surreal direction because of this. Direct sound is something I insisted upon, even in situations where the recorded sound wasn’t the best. And this relates to performance as well—if you’re using non-actors, doing ADR isn’t going to be easy and you’ll lose a lot of nuance. There’s a scene—the first one I wrote, actually—where Dan and Mark are in the kitchen of their apartment and they kick Mike out. They’re sitting across from each other at the table, and the camera is just on Mike. There’s a lot going on with his face, with his voice—part of it is him having difficulty remembering his lines, but there are subtleties there that I can’t imagine recreating in post.

Scope: Could you describe your working relationship with your cinematographer Sage Einarsen?

Fendt: He’s willing to work in conditions of extreme poverty. We essentially take the light of the location and boost it just enough to get an exposure, to remain faithful to the locations, which are the actual places where the performers live. He’s also someone who, having worked with him for so long, is generally on the same page as me, and he has a very good visual sense. He basically only shoots my films at this point; his day job is as a freelance illustrator. He’s a brilliant draftsman.

Scope: And in addition to being your DP and an illustrator, Sage is also a Japanese interpreter…

Fendt: That’s right. A lot of translators work on these films!

Scope: You’re pretty well known for your translations of French-language film criticism. In revisiting the film, I was thinking about its having been directed by someone who works sometimes as a translator and shot by someone who works sometimes as an interpreter. How do you conceive of the relationship between your films and language?

Fendt: There’s two kinds of scenes in my films, generally: scenes where people are retelling stories they’ve told me previously (for example, all of the scenes with Cal), and scenes where people deliver dialogue that I’ve written for them. We don’t talk about character psychology at all; we only discuss blocking. In rehearsals I’m more interested in hearing how they recite the lines I’ve written for them. We rehearse only to the point where I feel they’re comfortable with the lines and they’re no longer trying to put something into them, certain intonations or turns of phrase. I want to avoid it feeling too acted. It’s almost documentary, and I often feel there’s a movement back and forth in this film, even within a single shot, between looking at someone and looking at a character.

Scope: In addition to your scholarly work on Straub, you’re working with the filmmaker/critic Gina Telaroli on a book about Henry King…

Fendt: Not a book—a zine!

Scope: Right. The episodic structure of Short Stay is very pronounced, effectively calling attention to how the shorts that preceded it could almost be viewed as episodes within another feature. Maybe they could be folded into Short Stay, although this film is rather different in that it’s urban.

Fendt: It works with a similar structure. For example, in Travel Plans it’s the most clichéd, film-school setup ever: “Rob enters a contest.” But after setting that up, the film wanders away from that without ever returning to it. In Short Stay, the situation is set up—Mike goes to Philadelphia and has this job and is living in this apartment with this semi-hostile roommate—and then the film introduces other characters (Liz, Meg, Marta) but none of it really goes anywhere because the character is not particularly ambitious. In another movie Liz might become a romantic interest, but in Short Stay, Mike just hangs out with her a little bit, invites her over to his house but doesn’t sleep with her, and then she disappears for a while, only to reappear with Mark.

Scope: And this resonates with what you find interesting in King’s films…

Fendt: His films are so episodic, it’s insane that they could have existed in Hollywood at that time. Maybe not, in that he began by making silent films, which do have a general tendency to be more episodic. The characters aren’t there just as engines for the narrative but are there for their own sake. And obviously King’s focus in a number of his films is on small-town life—he was very sensitive to specific details of places and characters. I was immediately excited by this when I saw Margie (1946), the first of his I saw, and then Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie (1952). It’s most prevalent in his Americana films, but it also comes out in his historical films. He’s incredible, the greatest.

Scope: With this film you seem interested in evil: really banal, almost benign, barely perceptible forms of cruelty and inconsideration. It’s notable that you made a film with a clear-cut villain in Mark, which isn’t exactly a fashionable move in art cinema today.

Fendt: It comes naturally out of trying to emphasize certain personality traits of the actors. This tragic aspect of Mike’s personality interests me, his stubbornness within certain circumstances, and how that would conflict with particular aspects of Mark’s personality. This gave me the freedom to exaggerate Mark’s inconsideration and hostility. The same is true with Rob, whom it’s implied that Mike has somehow wronged prior to the events of the plot…He’s not a mean or vindictive person at all, but he does have a tiny aspect of his personality which, if enlarged grossly, would produce a villainous aspect. I liked the idea of there being abrupt, inexplicable sequences, so Rob’s scene was rapid and confrontational. It’s also preceded by a weird sight gag, where Mike is the only person sitting in the stands at the hockey game, which isn’t even really emphasized as a gag.

Scope: All of your work thus far is so specific regionally, sociologically, and dramatically. Can you imagine making a film outside of this milieu and setting?

Fendt: What I like about cinema is presenting faces, voices, and places that people don’t typically see, so the more specific and regional it is, the better. At the moment, I have another project that will again be in Philadelphia, but I think it will be rather different on the whole. I can only really handle one project at a time. My attraction to Philadelphia and New Jersey is very strong, and to these kinds of things you don’t see often in movies, like suburban life. Getting at what a suburban house looks like by shooting in someone’s actual house or on an actual suburban street, where you can see the crappy side-panelling on people’s houses and the uneven sidewalks—the details that never make it into movies. That’s what I want to try to include more of. Sullivan Dan