The Rumpus Interview with William Cusick
I first became acquainted with the filmmaker William Cusick last year in New York at the Lower East Side Film Festival (LES), a most original film showcase that started as a pop-up six years ago and grew vertiginously to become one of the most carefully curated and eclectic film programs in the US. I love that time of the year (mid-June) when LES is on. With its positioning in one of the most vibrant NYC neighborhoods, this intimate festival really manages to engage the community and all the film lovers traveling from afar to attend.
William’s film, Pop Meets the Void, screened mid-festival as the centerpiece of a festival section daringly called “Mindfuck!” And rightly so; this film blows your mind away. It’s a bit unfair to call it a “film,” though, because we’re dealing with something that is more than a film. It is more truly a “film experience” that goes on the same par with virtual reality; wonderfully immersive and fun, its blend of intelligent, sophisticated storytelling, and pure entertainment value is a rare find. Expect a lot of humor from a cast that features popular New York comedians Sarah Tollemache, Jordan Carlos, Alexis Pereira, and legendary experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison in supporting roles.
For your second chance to treat yourself to Pop Meets the Void, the film is screening tomorrow, March 18, at the Museum of Moving Image, Queens, NYC. Purchase tickets here.
The Rumpus: Pop Meets the Void captures the zeitgeist in a way that no other film does. In this surreal dark comedy about a doubt-ridden musician who is trying to “make it” in the contemporary music world, talent is often confused with fame (and vice-versa) and even a child actor has panic attacks about “butchering a monologue” at a casting call! The film is also a visual and auditory feast, blending live action with dazzling motion graphics animation and an original musical score, your own. Where did this creation come from?
William Cusick: I’m so glad to hear your reactions to the film! This project has been a long, satisfying process from start to finish. I like your interpretation of what’s at the heart of the film. Getting to share the film with a New York audience at the 2015 Lower East Side Film Festival, where we premiered, was a really positive experience, and receiving the Best Feature Film award was totally unexpected and very affirming given all the risks we took with the film, particularly its unconventional narrative form.
Rumpus: What was the initial concept for the film and how did it change through the making of it?
Cusick: I started to develop the concept for Pop Meets the Void in the summer of 2010. The idea started as a vaguely formed notion for a film about making music—a musician story. It took about three years of writing, re-writing, and revising the screenplay before we started shooting in November 2013. During those years, Pop Meets the Void was deeply influenced by several other projects I was concurrently involved in producing and developing.
The initial idea to create a musician story came out of my own experiences as a hobbyist musician. I got my first four-track recorder when I was a teenager, and I’ve been writing and recording songs casually for twenty years, never releasing anything publicly—just maintaining a haphazard collection of nearly a hundred songs recorded over the years, like a journal or scrapbook. At some point, I realized this experience was not at all unique to me. Recording tools are ubiquitous in our society, and there is an entire subculture of home recording musicians in America. This experience of the closet musician—the bedroom musician who doesn’t release music or perform live—became the metaphorical center of the project early on in the process and the idea grew outwards from there.
Rumpus: So the film has autobiographical roots. How did you go about turning that into fiction?
Cusick: I felt the most interesting and honest approach to the material would be to immerse myself in the experience of being an aspiring musician, to draw on that experience to both inform the script and develop the soundtrack to the film. The heart of the film is the music, and it was important to me to try to let the music shape the narrative structure of the film, and not the other way around. Essentially, choosing to design first and ask questions later was a deliberate decision intended to let the music lead. It was the variations in the music we wrote that lead to the multifaceted structure of the film, picking up narrative cues from the wildly divergent songs we wrote. This reverse-engineering approach to writing comes from my experiences creating experimental theater productions where the process is given a higher priority than the final product.
Rumpus: Music, film, theatre—is there a talent you don’t have? When did you compose the music?
Cusick: I wrote and recorded the first full EP of songs for the film with Jeffrey Doto in December 2010, and we released the album online in January 2011 (Songs for Songs EP). We followed up with a remix album in June 2011 (Remixes for Songs EP) that was done by Kyle Rothermel, several tracks of which are featured in the latter half of the film. The three of us then collaborated on a third EP in 2012 entitled Pop Meets the Void and a mixtape entitled TEM, all of which came to serve as a core set of songs for the film. Throughout this process of songwriting, I was gathering conceptual and narrative material, shaping the screenplay as the music crystalized. The end result was our very unconventional narrative structure, and a script that came complete with a soundtrack.
Rumpus: So the visual aspect came later?
Cusick: Yes, the visual aspects of the film followed an evolution all their own. Early in the process of writing Pop Meets the Void, I was completing an experimental film entitled Welcome to Nowhere (Bullet Hole Road). This film was completed in early 2012 and set the groundwork for the blend of live action and motion graphics animation that underpins the visual style of Pop Meets the Void. Jonathan Weiss, the animator and visual effects artist who worked with me on both films, started working on crafting visual concepts for Pop meets the Void while the script was in development. Ultimately, the final film came from a highly iterative process of revision, discovery, and analysis over the course of five years. It entailed a lot of trust, a lot of collaboration, and a great deal of creative risk-taking.
Rumpus: The film has an incredibly complex structure, told through parallel narratives that intersect and overlap in a dream-like, surreal atmosphere. Who is “real” and who is dreaming in the film? I for one got totally lost in it and loved it.
Cusick: I’m really glad you enjoyed this aspect of the film. The structure of overlapping parallel narratives breaks away from the traditional three-act approach, and while it’s a difficult style to navigate both as a filmmaker and as an audience member, it creates a wonderful sense of getting lost in an enjoyable maze of interconnected paths that break apart, reconnect, and then break apart again. Keeping all of these micro-narratives up in the air, running parallel and then intentionally overlapping is a storytelling approach I discovered in Luis Buñuel’s later films and which I really enjoy. When we think one character is dreaming but another character wakes up, a mind-bending handoff occurs that makes everything spin ninety degrees. That sense of suspended understanding, the ecstasy of disorientation is an aspect of the experience I’m trying to create for audiences.
However, the question of who is real and who is dreaming is a particularly hard question to answer. I’m of the opinion that none of it is real, so every interpretation is valid. Within the frame of a film there’s no objective reality to be found, regardless of fiction or documentary, and these film forms are purposely overlapping within Pop Meets the Void to deny any one singular interpretation. It’s structured rhizomatically, where each parallel narrative grows outwards from another, allowing for entry and exit to each character in a series of organically layered story threads.
Rumpus: You’re acting in the film and playing four roles. Was it difficult to direct and act at the same time?
Cusick: Directing and acting simultaneously is tricky because one role tends to take precedence over the other at any given time. Early on, I came to the conclusion that it isn’t very effective to try doing both simultaneously, so I adopted a segmented approach. First I would direct the scene, rehearse, get everything in order, sort things out with each department, and then step in front of the camera to do a few test shots. Once I had confirmed the look and feel of a setup with Bart Cortright, our cinematographer, I felt confident I could focus solely on acting during each take. The directing imperatives would shift to the back of my mind while the camera was rolling. After a series of takes, I’d generally review footage with Bart and TaraFawn, give notes to the cast or crew to make adjustments, and then we’d do more takes. So it was a lot of alternation, a lot of switching. It was very difficult to perform both roles, but having done it, I strongly urge every filmmaker who wants to be a director to try it, and would say the same to every actor, as well. Developing empathy for the various roles involved in film production can only help to improve collaborations and strengthen trust between collaborators.
Performing as four separate characters in the film posed more of a logistical problem than anything else. We didn’t use wigs, so the shooting order was based on the characters’ hair and beard lengths. Switching between each character was aided immensely by the costume designs by TaraFawn Marek. She made really strong choices about the characters’ looks and personal styles that really informed my understanding and approach to each role. Having written the script, I had a solid grounding in each character, but in production there was very little time between each role. Tara’s design structure proved tremendously helpful in defining and delineating the performances.
Rumpus: How big/small was your crew?
Cusick: Our crew was generally pretty small on any given day, due to both our limited budget and to the nature of each shooting day. Generally, we had six to eight people on set or location, including actors. There were a few days of green screen shooting that involved over fifty people coming through the tiny studio where we shot, but most days were fairly low key and we stayed on a tight schedule.
Rumpus: Another thing I really enjoyed about your film is the dialogue. It feels so genuine and candid and at the same time injected with just the right amount of irony. Was the dialogue inspired by your real life encounters with people in the music industry? The nightmarish interview scene with the two increasingly threatening female reporters was a killer!
Cusick: Some of the dialogue is derived from personal experiences and conversations, but for the most part it’s the product of my imagination. I spent a lot of time researching musician films, biopics, musicals, documentaries, reading biographies, and generally consuming anything that touched on music as subject matter as I searched out all of the tropes and clichés. It was important to look at the work that’s already out there exploring these specific topics, and how it’s been handled by various filmmakers and producers in the past.
The music industry is a mythologized and storied aspect of American culture. Many of us grow up and think at some point in our lives that we could be a famous singer or musician or in a band, if even only for a minute, no matter how untalented or undisciplined. And that daydream of success and stardom is patently absurd, manufactured by an industry designed to promote itself above all else. I see the process of curating and cultural gatekeeping as the crux of independent music as a cultural force today, across all levels of the industry. Getting your work promoted or reviewed is increasingly difficult in a digital landscape of oversaturation. So, in some ways, it’s nice to see a wannabe artist fail miserably at getting what he thinks he wants or deserves, simply because he tried. To me, facing the oblivion of being ignored is a fascinating, menacing, and deeply pertinent aspect of music in our culture that films about music tend to all but ignore, and I tried to capture that in the way the characters speak about music in the film.
Rumpus: The little girl actor and angel of hope is delightful. Who is she and has she since come to terms with the “conflicting concepts of reality” that adults are afflicted with?
Cusick: The young girl in the film is portrayed by Abby Gerdeman, a young actress who also happens to be my niece. I think the work she did in the film is phenomenal and I’m glad you enjoy her performance. Her relationship to the other characters is as parallel as the rest, or at least it seems so to me. She’s another layer of the onion, going through the process of creating work, presenting herself to an audience for judgment, and waiting for a result that may never arrive from an audience she isn’t sure even exists.
But I should clarify—the question of “conflicting concepts of reality” isn’t Abby’s question—it’s her mother Sarah’s question. Those lines are spoken by the little girl while she rehearses with her mother, and those lines were presumably written by her mother, so it’s hard to say if the little girl is aware of the strange existential afflictions her mother’s writing deals with, or if she’s simply performing. I’d like to think that the mother character is okay with the realization that we all have conflicting concepts of reality, but it’s open to interpretation.
Rumpus: Your film has some dark scenes, but you concluded on a bright, optimistic note. Was it important to end the film that way?
Cusick: I think so. I think of the film as lighthearted and funny overall. And while there are a few dark sequences that can be read as heavy, I think the dreamlike structure of the film gives the audience the ability to deal with these sequences with levity. Because of the structure of the film, it ends about seven times, as each principle character dissipates from the larger framework and we’re left with the final lines from Abby. The bright, upbeat ending is really the result of the music, I think. That final song, “Always Already,” has this sort of lift-off feeling to it—and a lot of the music that Jeff (Doto) and I write has this quality. Upbeat, fat synthesizers, mallets, jangly guitars, looping hooks. I know I like movies to give me a sort of nice “send-off,” even if the film is dark as hell and brutal. If that final music kicks in and lifts me out of my seat, it can lend the entire film a feeling of completion. The final lines of the film come from my own personal relationship with film and movies, and that relationship is one of disorder that can right itself and ultimately get better.
Rumpus: What “ideas” would you like the audience to take away from your film? Because, to quote one character in your film, “People like ideas…”.
Cusick: I think that’s true—people do like ideas! I’m very interested in other people’s ideas, and I’d love to hear what they think about the narratives of the film, how they relate or don’t relate to the characters, and why. If a discussion about the act of creating art or entertainment and the nature of sharing original work were to ensue after viewing the film, I’d love to hear it, because to me this is an extremely important question, and a deeply personal one. I think that line of thinking cuts right to the old questions of “why am I here?” and “what am I supposed to do?” For me, the importance of these questions is central to the film.
I believe we all have an urge to create, whether it’s music or painting, a business or a family, and this act of cultivation as universal human experience is worth investigating, because what happens when you’re done? You’ve made this thing and then what? Why should anyone care? Why should you care about what anyone else has done? This bridge between creation and discovery, this is the underpinning of community. If no one’s listening, there’s just a void.