Saturday 29 November 2014

Interview with Paul Schattel

Paul Schattel is an American screenwriter, director, producer, editor, lecturer and a trained journalist. He is based in Asheville, North Carolina, where he founded Harrow Beauty Motion Pictures, a boutique video production company. Paul has made three feature films, Sinkhole, Alison, and Quiet River. He has also lectured and taught classes in directing, screenwriting, acting and video editing in university settings across the Southeast, as well as in NYC and Los Angeles.

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was raised in 1970s rural Alabama, in the US. It was a cool place to grow up, actually, but, like anywhere else, it could be troubled. Alabama has a unique sort of low self esteem—it has a problematic past and is often characterized as backwards, and sometimes it really does earn that description. So I have a love/hate relationship with Alabama—so much unrealized potential, so many misguided priorities. I remember reading about sensitive little Kurt Cobain growing up in rural Washington, and identified with him quite a bit. We were about the same age.

What kind of a family did you grow up with?

I had a loving mother, but there was a darkness, a mental illness—paranoid schizophrenia, actually—that kind of took over my family. It's hereditary, and just by genetic luck I seemed to have been passed over. But my mom's side of the family were devastated by it—my aunt was full blown mentally ill; my mother's illness progressed as she got older, and even my brother was afflicted. He died just this year, from a very basic, treatable condition that got much worse because he refused
to see a doctor.
   As a matter of fact, I addressed my family's illness in a script for an upcoming movie—Your Ass Is Grass, which is in development now with True Blood's Carrie Preston. It's about a woman struggling with mental illness who is caught up in a brutal home invasion. And when she impulsively decides to get even, things start getting really dark. But it was my way of addressing the affliction which damaged my family.

Where did you go to school?

I am a product of public school in Alabama in the 1970s. I attended a Catholic high school for two years but then was asked to leave. College was a public school in Alabama—the University of Montevallo. It was kind of like the Athens, Georgia of Alabama—a place where freaks and hippies and artists were welcomed. Most of my lifelong friends came from this place.

When did you first take an interest in storytelling?

Thank you for using that term, rather than the more typical 'writer' or 'director.' Storytellers do their thing across various media, and that's what I do, too. I've always wanted to be a storyteller—I have little elementary school notebooks with drawings and stories in them.
   The very first story I ever wrote was about a fly fisherman who gets swept down a raging river. He almost drowns and then somehow wakes up on the shore, wondering how he was saved. He looks over to briefly catch a Sasquatch disappearing into the trees.

What was your first paying job (in any field)?

First paying job was a dishwasher in an ice cream/fast food parlor in Hoover, Alabama. I quickly moved up to cook and have enjoyed cooking ever since. But then I was fired for goofing off.
   The weirdest job I ever had was as a night cleaning person in a small town KMart in Alabama. Let me tell you, there is no more desolate feeling than eating lunch at 2AM in an KMart employee break room in Jasper, Alabama.

You’ve made three feature films. Which of them taught you the most?

My debut film Sinkhole (2004) taught me the most, just by virtue of being the first. It was also the most ambitious—it was shot on 35mm and tightly plotted and very precise and all that.
   My second film, Alison, was more loose—it had a more non-linear, Gus Van Sant kind of energy, and my third, Quiet River, is a chamber piece—an eco-thriller set in small town North Carolina.
   I like regional films—I think of them almost as literary thrillers, like mystery novels from a prolific writer. All of the films were back door pictures, meaning I made them when a larger budgeted project fell through. I've been chasing bigger budgets for a while but they tend to collapse (or get delayed) before they truly get going. It's been frustrating, which is why I created a Kickstarter project for my fourth feature film, American Breakdown. You can talk about making movies, I've learned, or you can just go ahead and make movies.

Do you include Hitchcock-like cameos of yourself in your films?

Ha! Actually, I am in Sinkhole, but only because we needed another extra onscreen (my back is to the camera). I really dislike being in front of the camera, and have a great respect for those who can do it well. It ain't easy!

Your film Sinkhole has been described as a “rural noir.” We’re more accustomed to noir stories played out in a big city. Does noir work in the countryside? Was this a case of you making your story fit the available resources, rather than the other way round?

Sure, noirs can work anywhere—look at the recent Cold In July, which is also a rural noir—it takes place in East Texas. Or Inherent Vice, which is kind of a beach noir. I do like the countryside—it's my territory. I can own it, so I'm confident there.
   I'm really drawn to darker, rural stuff—bands like The Drive By Truckers and Uncle Tupelo get me going. I like the clash of modern sensibilities against rural structures that may have been in place for decades, which is one reason I now live in Asheville, NC. Ten minutes outside town, down the right road, and you're suddenly decades in the past. You can make stories anywhere. If you've had dance training, for instance, you can make a great film set in that world—look at Black Swan.

You have a Kickstarter campaign running until December 3, aimed at funding another feature film called American Breakdown. Could you tell us a bit about that project?

American Breakdown is a dark comedy about a struggling country musician, who gets stranded in a small Southern town, and how he has to come to terms with both the town's eccentric residents and his own screwed up psyche. I like to call it a 'redneck Woody Allen film' or compare it to something the Coen Brothers might find worth shooting. But you can see the same patterns—small towns, incongruous psychology, identity fluidity and even gender fluidity. It's a mind trip.

What are three things you wish someone had told you about making films when you were starting out?

One: Take your time. There's no rush, and putting out hurried work is certainly not the best way to proceed. Be patient.

Two: Even though it may seem you're working in a void, you're not. The film world is a small town; everyone knows everyone, and you only get one chance to make a first impression.

Three: Study story more than you think you should. I trusted myself and my talents (and did okay with it), but if I had had more preparation and storytelling sophistication, I would have made more of an industry splash. Trusting your talents is

great, but knowing technique is important, too. You can't be a noble savage in film.

If you had to suggest just one screenwriting book to a newbie writer in Adelaide, which one would it be?

I really liked John Truby's The Anatomy of Story. It has a pretty neat 22 point breakdown of story considerations that seems to be fairly comprehensive. It's not a blueprint, but more of a methodology of looking that digs deep in a simple way.

What are your ten favourite (favourite, not ‘best’) movies of all time?

Most (not all) Kubrick films are mandatory.
Blue Velvet (1986)
Boogie Nights (1997)
Taxi Driver (1976)
Eraserhead (1977)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Wise Blood (1979)
Badlands (1973)
Raising Arizona (1987)
Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987)
Repulsion (1965)
So many wonderful movies.

What’s next for Paul Schattel?

I'll move on to American Breakdown, then Your Ass Is Grass. I also have a twisted historical fantasy novel I'm working on—In The Dark All Cats Are Grey. It's about a kid from (guess where) rural Alabama who gets caught up in the early 20th Century boom in spiritualism and then goes down the crazy occultist rabbit hole. It's dark and kinda gothic, and completely unfilmable.


Unknown said...

Paul Schattel says movies allow us to experience life through a different perspective. Storytelling is a powerful tool to live another’s experience. The highs, the lows, the joys, the defeats, the consequences of our actions. In this way, storytelling becomes instructive.

The Green Reaper said...

Paul Schattel's shadow really does live in Jasper, AL. I mean his actual real shadow. There's a reason everyone tells you about going through the state of Alabama and they encountered one of the worst storms they have ever been in. His storytelling nature is steeped in southern gothic, which almost gives it more credit than it really is. Good Luck far flung shadow man!