Interview with Eugene Kotlyarenko, writer-director of “0s & 1s” (2011), which returns to reRun Gastropub Theater tonight (Aug 26)by Joseph Pomp on August 26, 2011Posted in: Also Recommended
Born in Odessa, Ukraine, Eugene Kotlyarenko raced through Columbia in three short years, fleeing Manhattan’s Morningside Heights in 2007 with little more than a laptop and Film Studies B.A. in his backpack. “In my mind I was like, ‘I gotta get the fuck out of school and move to L.A., because that’s where people make movies.’”
Following a week-long run at Dumbo’s reRun Gastropub Theater in March, Kotlyarenko’s DIY debut feature 0s & 1s (2011) returns for the theater’s first-annual Best Of celebration “reRun RERUNS” (our congratulations to programmer Aaron Hillis for making it to this one-year milestone). 0s & 1s is some sort of revolution in cinematic language. Its simple story of an Echo Park slacker who loses his laptop (and with it, his life’s work) is told through the prism of a computer-desktop interface. As the Village Voice’s Andrew Schenker succinctly puts it, “A riot of pop-up screens that ape everything from Facebook to first-person shooters….makes visible the invisible presence that defines our everyday social encounters.”
Joseph Pomp, Alt Screen: Do you think there is a difference between film culture in New York and film culture in L.A. and, if so, does the internet play a roll in it?
Eugene Kotlyarenko: I went to go look at your site, Alt Screen, which I hadn’t seen it since it’s basically based around New York screenings. There is a comparable site in L.A. called Film Radar, but it’s flagrantly uncool. It’s just a calendar, and doesn’t really describe any of the movies, just lists them. [Ed: Radar features some limited editorial content; as for cool, we wouldn’t know it if it hit on us at a Bushwick dive bar.]
My time in L.A. has been concurrent with [Cinefamily at] the Silent Movie Theater. I remember when they opened, around Halloween time, they showed the amazing and intense Zulawski movie, Possession, and I wound up seeing a lot of great movies there, like Frownland, some Truffaut, The Mother and the Whore more recently. Hadrian [Belove], the guy who runs it, really knows how to leverage the internet in a way that, unfortunately, other theaters that I also like don’t, so they’ve been able to gather quite a following. They have pretty eclectic programming, and I think a large part of its success is that their presence as a “place to be” is felt through events on Facebook or email blasts. So without the internet you couldn’t nearly as well establish a “scene” around a theater, because it’s not like a touring band. The feverish mentality that exists around music, which generally doesn’t exist around contemporary film culture, is kind of semi-successfully conjured by Cinefamily.
In general, I would say for my first year or two out here, I was super lonely, I didn’t know anybody, and the main thing keeping me here was that I thought the movie theaters were very good.
J.P.: Is there an interesting, independent film scene in L.A.?
E.K.: Not that I know of. Most of the filmmakers that I feel I can relate to live in New York. I have a friend who’s making a film about driving, sort of like Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A.. You figure in a town that’s a center of filmmaking, there would be tons of young filmmakers just trying to do something inventive and bold, but for the large part people are just trying to “make it” in the industry. More power to them, but you’re just not getting that many people doing something new, risky, weird or personal.
J.P.: 0’s & 1’s is one of the only movies I can think of that really represents the parts of the city like Echo Park that young people have made their own. What do you make of the way L.A. has played itself onscreen?
E.K.: I have always loved LA movies and filmmakers like Cassavetes, Altman, Burnett and Tarantino who show the less glamorous, or at least less cliched side of the city. I very much desire to make a movie like their gems, which use the streets, neighborhoods and highways of the megalopolis to great effect.
However, 0s & 1s is not that movie – or at least not in the traditional way. I do believe it defines some sort of LA living from my perspective, and it’s not nearly as energetic or bohemian-romanticized as those directors would have it. The geography and lifestyle I chose to portray is this bland domestic trap, that is easy to get into when the traffic overwhelms, or the outside heat is too much to bear or you don’t have a job or reason to leave the house. L.A., in a certain way, inspires either the most extreme action or utter banality. Those were the feelings I had when first moving here, and so those seemed to be the circumstances I found my characters were in. Consequently, those stagnant trapped situations are the ones they are portrayed in. It’s not exactly specific to LA, but it was specific to my LA experience. So they were either like that, or driving.
J.P.: A large part of your audience for 0s & 1s inevitably lives on the internet. Do you think that’s where the main life of the film will be, or do you think it has more theatrical potential?
E.K.: I like to think it has theatrical potential. I’ve had the majority of my powerful film-viewing experiences in theaters. That’s not to say I haven’t had some transcendent moments watching movies on my computer–I certainly have–but just from seeing the film play at festivals, or at the reRun when we played there in March, it is a very visual trip to see a huge computer user interface on a big screen. I think it’s kind of mind-blowing. It should be experienced in a movie theater if it can be, but of course there’s something inherently interesting about seeing a user interface on your user interface, and I think the movie will have a life on computers. But even though I’m trying to do things differently, at the end of the day I’m a bit of a traditionalist, and I would like to see it in theaters, and there are some people working on it, so I hope it happens.
J.P.: How has the reaction been in internet art circles?
E.K.: When we were playing in New York in March, I was concurrently part of a show at 319 Scholes for jstchillin.org, which is the website for whom I made my second feature film, Skydiver. Mostly that show wasn’t for filmmakers, but for artists who specifically work with computers and the internet to make art that’s generally seen online and not in a gallery. This was a physical gallery show, so everybody conceptualized how to bring their work to a physical space. 5 or 6 people from the show came to see 0s & 1s and really dug it, but both of my movies exist in a weird space. They’re pushing certain boundaries, and are conceptually pretty experimental, but the thematics of them, and the fact that they’re interested in straight narrative, kind of alienates a more fine-art crowd, because that´s not part of the expectation set when you have moving picture art for that universe.
When you think of video art, or film art that’s fine-arts- or gallery-oriented, it’s usually not concerned with narrative and tries to conjure up some sort of transgressive value set and will do something conceptually inventive. On the other hand, when you go to a movie theater, you’re expecting to see a movie in the normal way, that has montage how you want it, a unified singular image cutting to a unified singular image, and neither of my movies do that, so they exist in this kind of purgatory, unfortunately, between things that the art world would embrace and things that the mainstream filmmaking world would embrace.
There’s definitely an audience for this film, it’s that the connoisseurs of either circle really get their minds busted and their expectation sets deflated when they see either of these films. There have been gallery owners who say, “Why don’t we show your film here?”, but I feel like that’s copping out because I’m interested in engaging the maximum amount of people, and I think this is a movie for 13-year-olds, for 35-year-olds, for people who don’t need to contextualize anything and just need to bring their own computer, internet, social networking, cell phone habits to it.
J.P.: The films are successful as straight narrative films. When I started to watch Skydiver, going into it knowing nothing about it, I was very skeptical, seeing how it looks like a video art piece built around video chats. But it’s very captivating on a narrative level.
E.K.: That to me was the most important thing. It was partly sketched, and partly improvised, not only in terms of the conversations, but in terms of the actual narrative. It has a lot to do with chance, but I wanted to ensure that it stayed perpetually engaging. I knew I wanted to do it about terrorism, and someone who was alienated, but I didn’t really know how or why, but then things in my own life came together that gave me an impetus to push the character to those places.
J.P.: Did you feel that there was some calling outside of movies that you may have been moving toward, in the way that the protagonist in Skydiver says he was moving away from movies and was under the spell of Wanar ibn Ali?
E.K.: Never away from movies, but I guess, I felt a calling to do something other than 0s & 1s. And so Skydiver was a direct reaction to the process of completing 0s & 1s. I had been working on 0s & 1s for two and a half years. It’s a complicated movie with a lot of special effects, and we had no money, so it just took forever, because we just had to wait for people who were willing to volunteer their time. Sometimes there were five artists, sometimes there were no artists.
I did have a lot of amazing and very close collaborators who were able to conceptualize a lot of the things you see. Andrew Schwartz was our lead visual effects supervisor. What I enjoyed about the process was that a lot of the programs and pages and interface are all part of the same system but individual pages are pretty different from each other, which just means that there were a lot of great artists who were willing to give their time for no pay because they believed in the movie and were into doing some interesting design. I would sit with them for a few days and we would come up with a concept, and then I would just let their aesthetic sense take over. I really wanted them to embrace the look they wanted, because I knew that would lend a certain coherence to a computer operating system, which is heterogeneous and features a lot of different design voices under one guiding principle.
A lot of the time, though, I felt really frustrated and powerless about the movie. Ironically, there was a hard drive crash, so I lost a lot of my work. I became really depressed about 0s & 1s because it was ruining my life, and it was supposed to be this simple concept. The best debut films are these simple concepts taken to a dedicated extreme and a clever place. I was going for that, and it became too complicated. So I thought of a movie that was the complete opposite of that: it was just a computer camera and me and my friends.
J.P.: Did your friends always know they were being filmed for the movie? It seemed like there were certain snippets that could have been placed in the movie from a different context.
E.K.: It seems like some things are staged and some things are not, and it’s not clear what’s what. There are legitimately people in it who (1) didn’t know I was filming a movie, (2) didn’t know I was recording, (3) knew I was recording but didn’t know for what. There were people who were sincerely convinced that I had modified my life and my mentality toward this character. I had to clarify with them a week later, “Hey, sorry, I was acting.” But they didn’t know I was acting. So there are actual reactions there.
The most interesting thing about that experience, in the making of and later cutting of unedited material was the tenuous line between reality and fiction. I walked that line during every conversation and I trust that energy exists throughout the film, even during its most absurd narrative excursions. I hope people can feel actual life emanating from the center or impeding on the fringes and that it gives them a voyeuristic rush. Film lovers are truly voyeurs — privy to something transcendentally real or sublimely imagined. It approaches the real, in the way that I think 0s & 1s attempted to approach the alterna-real. Skydiver beckons the viewer towards a significant immersion into reality. 0s & 1s obnoxiously frustrates and pushes the viewer towards a world where all experience seems unnaturally simulated and mediated.
J.P.: One criticism that could be made against 0s & 1s are that the interactions between people are a little superficial, or at least not that complex, whereas in Skydiver they totally are.
E.K.: To understand the way people interact in 0s & 1s or the way that that movie deals with narrative…well, I was in a dark place. I had just moved to L.A. The reward system out here is based on making the most generic, formulaic shit. “Oh, someone just made a movie about a pregnant teenager? It’s quirky? We’re just going to do more quirky pregnant teenager movies!”
I just wanted to get away from all these tropes that are built into contemporary “independent” cinema, or even just normal movies. Like, there’s a love interest introduced in the beginning of 0s & 1s, and of course a normal movie would follow that development. Our movie says, “Here’s a love interest, he’s so upset,” but then he loses his computer, and the love interest disappears [laughs]. It’s an accurate reflection of what happens, at least to me, when I’m upset and then a really important thing happens in my life. I just forget that and focus on that really important thing. I was very conscious of leading people in the direction of their expectations and then fuck with that. I’m not going to take you through the exciting, tense world of mystery; I’m going to take you to this banal and mundane exercise in repetition.
But in that experience of not going for the girl and doing this exercise in repetition, you get access to a different narrative experience. It’s not necessarily one that’s “quirky” or “indie-friendly,” but is for me an accurate, nihilistic understanding of life through computers and on the internet–this embarassing and mostly caustic experience of repeating yourself and interacting with these people who are so concerned with their self-image. I just wanted to capture the internet experience and was much less concerned with fulfilling people’s expectation set of a generic film narrative.
Joseph Pomp is an Editorial Assistant at Alt Screen. His writing has appeared in The L Magazine and Slant.
Eugene Kotlyarenko is currently penning an erotic thriller, which Joseph hopes to see invade multiplexes ASAP. 0s & 1s is playing at reRun Gastropub Theater tonight at 10:00.