CAROLINE GOLUM with Gina Telaroli
If the beginning of Caroline Golum’s debut feature recalls one of cinema’s great late films, Alain Resnais’s You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet, the rest of the movie eschews Resnais’s more contemplative nature for antics and affect, a mood that more closely resembles a kind of PG Russ Meyer or even David Cronenberg. Appropriately entitled A Feast of Man, her movie revolves around a group of WASP-y folks that have gathered together following the death of their mutual and wealthy friend. The catch being that said friend has left each of them a rather large amount of money, if, and only if, they agree to consume his corpse.
It’s an ambitious conceit for a first film, one that extends outside the now traditional parameters of naturalism. Golum does a lot with a little, shrewdly and necessarily signifying wealth and in turn a social class typically forgotten by micro-budget filmmaking. There’s a deliberate design and craft to everything, from the set to the old-fashioned title sequence.
With the film’s upcoming premiere run at Spectacle in Williamsburg, we carried on an email correspondence over the course of a few weeks and discussed some of the harsher realities of making American Independent Cinema these days, from seemingly nonexistent outside funding to the exhausting rigmarole of the film festival system. Golum’s specific and signature brand of wit and charm effortlessly extends off the screen, somehow making a mostly intolerable process sound almost fun.
Gina Telaroi (Rail): I’m curious about the various starting points for the film? Not just your creative goals and inspiration but also how it got started on a practical level, like finding money and crew and cast.
Caroline Golum: There were a few starting points for this movie because it was made in fits and starts! Let us begin at the beginning: Dylan Pasture, with whom I co-wrote the script, came up with this idea in a screenwriting class at our mutual alma mater, the School of Visual Arts. He brought it up to Bill Hopkins, who was our directing professor, and Bill immediately thought to introduce Dylan to me. This would have been in, maybe, 2007 (!).
Several years later (5-6?), Dylan and I were both smarting from two separate, but equally frustrating, attempts at making our First Feature Films. One dark night of the soul, I’d had a few too many, and drunk-dialed him, asking through my gin-mixed tears why we'd never made A Feast of Man. If I recall correctly, he said, “Why haven’t we?” And so we set out to write the script.
That was in November 2013. By April 2014 we’d had a draft we were satisfied with, and an actor attached: Frank Mosley, who has been a tireless evangelist for this weird movie from jump. He introduced us to John Yost, an Albany-based producer, who loved the script. The enthusiasm radiating from Frank and John really lit the fire under our asses, so to speak. It gave us a sort of urgency that probably wouldn't have been there if those two gentlemen hadn’t climbed aboard.
We had all of our ducks in a row about two months before we started shooting. It was John who’d recommended taking out a loan, so I inquired with my credit union and managed to secure one for about half of our total shooting (not post-production!) budget. The other half came from a canny mix of: using my two weeks’ paid vacation to shoot the film, which ensured I’d get paid the first and last days of shooting, and a credit card (which made up about 1/4 of the total budget overall).
And we saved money where we could, too, in some very creative ways: the location we used was an Airbnb, in which we also stayed. John Stegemann, our production designer, managed to barter with a local antiques dealer for our furniture and esoteric set decor: I think they shot a commercial for the store later on, free of charge, in exchange for lending privileges. I did the wardrobe for about $500, sourcing clothes from Goodwills and Salvation Army stores.1
Rail: I love your description of how Frank and John's enthusiasm helped you and provided added motivation to do the work necessary to make the film. Support is such a necessary part of the process and so often we lose sight of how mentors or collaborators can make a huge difference in a film actually getting made. You mentioned that the movie was finished in 2017. Finishing a movie is a such a difficult thing and can be such a slow and drawn-out and strange process. Someone once told me you never actually finish a movie, you simply decide to abandon it. I remember you sent me a link to the movie back in February of 2016. What happened in between then and when you were actually completed in 2017?
Golum: I don’t like to bring this up too often, because it’s extremely embarrassing and really shows my ass here, but I will because I think it's useful: DO NOT, under ANY circumstances, skimp on your final sound mix. Even typing this feels so obvious and foolish! Maybe this is the first thing they teach you in film school, and I cut class that day? I don’t know. I hired a former colleague of mine who had no experience, and he completely screwed the pooch. We ended up having to redo the sound mix, so I got double-fucked with added time and expense. So, that’s number one. Number two is color correcting, which was—after editing—my favorite part of the post-production process to sit in on. It really doesn’t feel finished, in my opinion, until you've got a nice hue in there.
Rail: I really liked the way the movie makes money a physical proposition, how it forces us, in a wonderfully perverse way, to consider wealth as something that affects one’s physical self. It feels like money is hardly ever discussed honestly these days when it comes to independent films. I know people who have premiered their films at prestigious European festivals and then went on to have good NY premieres and have their films play all over the world and even get picked up by small distributors for a NY theatrical run. Which is to say, if you are outside looking in, they seem incredibly successful. But the reality is that the scenario I just described doesn’t actually result in the filmmaker making any money. It’s kind of nuts. You basically paid for A Feast of Man yourself through loans and credit cards. How do you feel about that after the fact? Would you do it again?
Golum: There’s a famous old joke that I think applies here: how do you make a million dollars playing jazz? Start with two million!
Every once in a while you hear about a director who started making independent films and, miraculously, linked up with the right people: folks in positions of power or with access to capital who go to bat for this so-and-so and catapult them to a proper “Hollywood” career. But you know as well as I do that those stories are very few and far between. There aren’t too many Blair Witch-esque success stories in this business, and I doubt there ever will be again.
Knowing that I didn’t have a particularly marketable film on my hands, or contacts who could bankroll something like this, put me in a position to make this call: do I accrue a certain amount of debt in order to make this film, or do I spend several (potentially fruitless) years chasing down investors with nothing to show for it? Clearly I chose the former, and we went about it in an unorthodox way. Would I recommend this hodgepodge method to everyone? No! But the truth is there is very little money in the mattress for first-time filmmakers who don’t have an existing body of shorts or a Rolodex of investors, producers, and distributors at the ready.
Zach Clark, our editor, says you can make any film for any amount of money. We had our patchwork budget and it got the job done. In a perfect world, we’d have a massive arts fund that existed purely to dole out money for filmmakers of every stripe and style. Maybe this will happen in our lifetimes, but I doubt it. Staring down the barrel of my next movie, which is a period film that is also largely unmarketable, I have to decide whether I want to get back into this years-long process of saving up, shooting a bit, saving some more, editing a bit, and so on. Right now I'm scrambling to apply for grants, make different iterations of the budget, and so on—but maybe someone, somewhere with a hundred grand will swoop in and this story will have a happy ending.
Rail: I suppose the next logical question here is would you eat a dead friend in order to fund your next film?
Golum: Yes, but only with their enthusiastic consent. And they’d get an Executive Producer credit.
Rail: To switch gears a bit, style is obviously very important to the film. You make a point to highlight it in how the movie looks, the decor and clothing, etc., but also in the performance style of the actors and some of the camerawork. What were some of your inspirations for this, cinematic or otherwise?
Golum: Ah, my favorite line of inquiry, wherein I get to flex my impeccable taste in cultural artifacts! The most frequent response we got from audiences after a screening was that the film was “Wes Anderson-y,” which I can see, but do not subscribe to. People see fine furnishings and clothes and immediately think of that oeuvre, and rightly so, because he's kind of cornered the market on decorative filmmaking. But from the outset, we really just wanted to make a Frank Tashlin movie: cartoonish performances, crowded frames, and tzotchkes—something that immediately told the audience that they were in for something funny and unrealistic.
Dylan and I revere Frank Tashlin, we love old Hollywood musicals and screwball comedies, and those films are as much about the look and feel as they are about the performances therein. If we’d had an ensemble cast of caricatures bouncing around in a beige room with Ikea furniture, it wouldn't land—to make these directing choices stick, you have to have the right set and setting. Even the opening credits, which you’d mentioned earlier, were deliberately designed to evoke old Hollywood credits sequences: we set that table and shot the whole thing in my living room in Brooklyn, for virtually nothing, which is both aesthetically and philosophically apiece with the film.
Rail: As a filmmaker who also loves old movies and incorporates them in her work in one way or another, I often think about how my work will function for an audience that gets the references and for audiences that don’t, which seems to be the case more and more these days for references to anything made before 1960. How important do you think it is for your audience to understand the type of films you are referencing? And how do you think the film exists outside of those references?
Golum: Well, when you make a movie it’s always three different movies: the movie you shoot, the movie you edit, and then the movie that people see. I didn’t set out to make some impenetrable pastiche—although some might argue to the contrary—but even a viewer who is less acquainted with Classic Cinema would get the general “vibe” of what we’re trying to put across. These cultural products are deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness because they’ve been repurposed, or handed down, through so many different filmmakers. A copy of a copy or a reference to a reference still retains some sheen of the original.
For the tone and style of the film, we wanted to make something that was divorced from the present day, and we got it: there are no computers in the film, for instance, because computers are boring and their presence instantly dates any film in which they appear. Whether or not this will make the film seem truly timeless in hindsight, or merely too-self-aware, is anybody’s guess. Fundamentally, the story is so absurd that it can only exist outside of those aforementioned references—and the proposition at its heart is universal, in a way. Who among us hasn't wished for a random windfall?
Rail: In a lot of ways, even with the absurd context, I found this to be a poignant movie about perseverance or playing the long game. These days the movie world feels like such a short game, things pop onto the scene and then they’re gone. And that’s only if you are actually lucky enough to pop onto the scene in the first place. I was wondering if you could talk about your film festival experience? I know you were applying to festivals for a few years before you actually had your premiere at the Sidewalk Film Festival last year. I think that most people don’t realize the perseverance it can take to play the festival game, whether you’re a first time filmmaker or a legend. I mean, I just saw the world premiere of a new Larry Clark movie during a retrospective of his work at Metrograph! It’s so crazy. Things seems to changing rather quickly and there’s clearly more movies than the festival world can handle.
Golum: From what I can glean—and granted, I speak from a place of somewhat limited experience—the festival game seems like a mixture of direct contacts at desired festivals, blindly and presumptuously emailing total strangers and, after all that, getting your film in front of sympathetic eyeballs. We submitted to Sidewalk as a work in progress the year prior, and were roundly rejected—what happened between 2016 and 2017 I can’t say, but certainly having a finished film helped. Maybe they saw a little twinkle of something in the work in progress submission, and were already game when the final product came across the transom. Alternately, I’ve received feedback from other festival programmers that was pretty blunt and insightful: essentially, we have a half-dozen people fielding submissions, and the individual who happened to get yours just wasn’t feeling it.
Where you see perseverance, I see that plus a healthy dose of masochism. One has to withstand a certain amount of punishment in the form of rejection, disappointment or, worse of all, flat-out ambivalence as part of the day-to-day. This film has had an unusual exhibition history thus far—we didn’t really do a festival premiere at the customary time of year, or go about it in the usual way. And even that unusual screening list—right up to, and including, our New York premiere at Spectacle—required a tremendous amount of pestering and prodding and follow-ups. There isn’t any particular way to crack this code—if there is, someone correct me (and bring me up to speed!)—so every filmmaker has to find the right admixture of the above in order to get their movie in front of an audience.
Rail: I'm so glad you brought up Spectacle! I know it’s a special theater for you. Could you talk a bit about your relationship to the theater and also about doing the New York Premiere of A Feast of Man there?
Golum: Can I ever! The theater was founded in 2010, and I didn’t become an official volunteer in good standing until 2015, but I had been programming screenings there and milling about on the fringes since its inception. And in the ensuing years it has become a very important space for me: I’ve seen a lot of incredible films there, I’ve met a great many friends and collaborators. There are very few places like it in New York today, and it has a “git ‘er done” ethos that is very much apiece with my own working methods.
Spectacle is, for me, part of the eruv. For the uninitiated, an eruv is a Hebrew term used to describe the area in Hasidic neighborhoods that are blessed and considered an extension of your living room. This extension confers certain privileges, like being able to carry your child on the Sabbath. I consider Spectacle to be an extension of my home, for good or for ill. Last summer, the day after we got Feast into Sidewalk, I was laid off from my job, and that very afternoon I made haste for Spectacle and used it as a kind of “wellness tent”/“nerve center” where I could send emails, focus on getting my ducks in a row for the world premiere, and just tune out the mishegoss of the straight world. We even QC’d our Blu-Ray at the theater, too, so you could say it's been a part of this film’s life for some time now.
Having our New York premiere at the Spectacle was always in the back of our heads—on set we’d say “can’t wait to see this at Spec” or “next stop, Spec,” things like that. Earlier this year, it became readily apparent that we wouldn’t be premiering at a big New York festival—and why should we, the film is not the usual festival fare. Rather than take this as an indictment of my talents (or lack thereof?) I saw it as a bit of kismet and made the call to have our premiere with an organization and audience that down for whatever. Is it the most extravagant or high-tone place to have your New York premiere? Maybe not, but prestige is not the point. Truthfully, this film is a crowd-pleaser and an outlier, so I wouldn't have it any other way.
Rail: We’ve talked a lot about some of the harsher realities of making independent films these days, something we both know all too much about, and I’m wondering what makes you hopeful about films and filmmaking moving forward? Or, what makes you want to keep trying to make movies in the face of just how little sense it actually makes?
Golum: This is going to sound a little off-topic, but bear with me because I assure you there’s a reason behind my answer. First off, I am presently at work on a film set in the Middle Ages. I bring this up for two reasons: one, I’ll take any and all opportunities to pimp my forthcoming efforts; two, in studying the Middle Ages I’ve learned a few things about the nature of art-making that might be useful here. You and I likely learned about the Medieval era as a kind of “Dark Age”: everyone covered in shit, dropping like flies, and living this utterly artless existence devoid of creativity or individuality. This is a misconception, quite frankly, and any scholar of this era would be more than happy to set you straight. The Middle Ages were plagued by, uh, plague and war, certainly, but we also see the first Western notions of individualism, humanism, the development of the university system, increased literacy among women. You know, all those nice little benchmarks we use to measure a “civilized” society.
Our current socio-political moment isn’t particularly rosy, and I’ve heard the word “Medieval” thrown around erroneously in conversation about the issues of the day. That being said, despite these myriad modern plagues and distractions there are still artists, art collectives, organizations that are making work that shines out, and speaks to the audiences engaging with it. Then, as now, it's easier to paint a broad portrait of a “fallow” era as one devoid of artistry or meaning. Filmmaking is at a crossroads right now, but hasn’t that always been the case? One of the risks you take in practicing a wholly modern art form (as opposed to a “fine” art form, like painting or whatever) is that technology is always rearing its head and rewriting the rules. The seventh art has been on the business end of these “disruptions” from jump, and somehow manages to muddle through each time. Filmmaking as a practice looks a certain way right now, but who’s to say what form it will take twenty years hence? Will I be able to keep up with that form? I can’t answer these questions, but I can try to keep at it at whatever pace I can, making whatever I can, with the understanding that it’s all a grand crap shoot. This uncertainty gives me pause, sure, but it also gives me a certain amount of hope, too: if the rules are in flux, there is opportunity to make work that goes against the grain, and I’ve chosen, for better or worse, to try and seize that opportunity.
A Feast of Man will play at Spectacle (124 S. 3rd St in Brooklyn):
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 12 – 7:30 PM [Q&A w/Hillary Weston]
MONDAY, OCTOBER 15 – 7:30 PM
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 21 – 7:30 PM [Q&A w/Andrew Lampert]
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 26 – 7:30 PM [Q&A w/Cristina Caccioppo)
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 28 – 5:00 PM
- Here’s an article about it if you want to dig a little deeper: https://filmmakermagazine.com/103115-so-you-cant-afford-a-wardrobe-designer-costume-design-for-independent-film-on-a-500-budget/
GINA TELAROLI, raised in Cleveland and currently based in NYC, is a filmmaker, writer, and the video archivist at Martin Scorsese’s Sikelia Productions. She is co-editor of the Film Section for the Brooklyn Rail.