Earlier this week, John Atkinson of the avant rock band Aa (Big A little a) did Karaoke at a bar in Melbourne, and was surprised by one of the songs in the repertoire. Atkinson recently scored the art house film L for Leisure, which comes out in New York this weekend, and is down under for the film’s Australian premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival. “It was funny, I actually thought of you, Lev,” he says on our phone call with filmmakers Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn. “I couldn’t believe they had the song, you know the Nirvana song ‘Negative Creep?'”
“Whoa,” says Lev, in literal awe. Atkinson continues: “It’s one of the super heavy Bleach songs. And the video for it was like, lots of tennis footage.” At this point it dawns on everyone that Atkinson has experienced a marvelous stroke of real life synchronicity – the film they worked on together is a bizarre homage to the early 90s, pairing languorous images of summer vacation activities with meaningfully stilted intellectual conversations dotted with tokens of the era like Tipper Gore, the LA Riots and Crystal Pepsi, set to Atkinson’s glitchy compositions. A tennis match set to an early Nirvana song wouldn’t have been out of place in the background of one of the surreal 90s scenes Horn and Kalman created. Whitney Horn chimes in, “That’s amazing.”
Atkinson tells us the first thing he did this morning was post a photo of the Karaoke TV screen, “I’m not the kind of person who’s like, ‘Ooh look at the Karaoke videos!’ because they are often like random and silly but that was a particularly choice combo.”
Arty and absurd, but too grounded in its own limitations to feel pretentious, L for Leisure is more of an impressionistic historical reenactment than than a period piece. The film imagines what the activities and conversations of a handful of graduate students would have been like on a series of vacations in 1992-93. When one of the characters lounging on a grassy quad asks, “I don’t know, what do you think about alternate universes?” it’s easy to imagine the film itself germinated from the same kind of conversation when the writer-director duo met as undergraduates in the early 2000s.
Having collaborated on a number of short films since 2004 as well as on the web series Halloween Face: A Real Horror Show, L for Leisure is the two’s first feature. In it they have created their own kind of dreamy, “alternate universe” with gorgeously fuzzy 16mm lensing that leaves a cast of predominantly non-actors to ponder a scope of topics ranging from current events, the study of Tree Spirits, the intoxicating effects of nutmeg, and other areas of intellectual inquiry. The film recalls a time at the dawn of the Internet when all of the answers were not immediately accessible, when the mispronunciation of certain words went unnoticed and excused, and the mind could still be left to wonder.
As suggested by its episodic, loosely narrative structure, the bare-bones production was fiercely independent. Lev and Whit live in different cities, so shooting locations were determined by where their cast and crew were located over the holiday breaks when the filmmakers were able to shoot, over the course of five years. The biggest line in the budget was for airfare.
The style, look and feel of the film is obviously very micro budget. Though you were working within certain financial constraints and the limitations of the living in different cities, it seems very intentional how indie the film feels. Could you talk about your self-described “indie as fuck” approach?
Lev Kalman: That quote just keeps bringing things full circle. I think John said “indie as fuck” like nine years ago, and we still use that quote. The very first time we posted a video you posted it to your blog and described it as that and it’s made its way still into our press kit now.
John Atkinson: You guys haven’t really evolved the approach at all since then.
LK: It’s weird when we’re doing interviews, there is a tendency to try to talk about our material restraint and our aesthetics as separate just because you know you’re like, “Oh why does it take five years?” And you’re like, “Well, because I have a job and because all of our actors are non-professional actors and that’s just the way it has to be.” Or you could just talk about it aesthetically and talk about how we wanted to make this sort of meandering and episodic piece, but really those two things are always together. It seems like the aesthetic has to do with people being aware that this is a movie that’s being given to them or told to them by two people with limited means who are trying to recreate a world that is beyond their ability financially. So instead this is sort of a personal, idiosyncratic approach at doing a period piece or a comedy.
In the Iceland scene when the men walk by wearing fake beards, the “Santas” are a perfect example of that.
LK: Yeah, there are three Santas walking in the background of that Iceland scene, and only one of them had a real beard.
Why keep your films small and DIY and not interact with the industry more to try to finance a bigger feature?
LK: To some extent we are trying to find a way to do this. In that sense we’ve tried to figure out ways to professionalize. If we can get funding to do what it is that we do, then that would be awesome. I feel like when we were way younger, 22, 23 years old, I wanted to be a success. I’ve realized since then that there are people who want to be a success and who are really good at that kind of commercial filmmaking, and that we are not good at it and we don’t really like doing it. So we stick to what we are good at, and where we are with making our films. We don’t get a lot of support, and they are not big movies, but we also can reach our arms out and not touch anybody else. We’re in our own little thing and we can keep working this way. It seems better to go deeper with what we have figured out about ourselves that is interesting, instead of try to mimic others’ successes.
The music in the film doesn’t necessarily sound idiosyncratically like 90s music. What were you going for?
LK: The soundtrack is really supposed to mirror the project of us. We also didn’t want anyone to confuse the movie with a movie that was made in the 90s. And while it has some overlaps with the films of that era, in particular just because there were more popular indie movies back then, the aesthetics and interests tend to overlap a little more. But it’s also very much a now-ish movie, and I think its perspective on [the 90s] and its methods are more contemporary. It’s definitely a movie about the distance between now and then. And it’s supposed to also just kind of feel like the same way that the movie is supposed to feel, like two people trying to do a kind of historical reenactment of that time. When we first started talking to John about it, we were like, “It’s probably better if there are things in it that feel 2000s-y. It should sound like somebody on a laptop making a soundtrack that’s about these feelings, and not about somebody trying to parrot or reenact what was already happening twenty-five years ago.”
JA: A lot of the soundtrack stuff was stuff I was already working on in my own music making. I hadn’t seen the movie yet when a lot of those songs germinated. I showed them to Lev, and he picked out songs that fit the mood they were trying to get into. There are a couple of songs that were going for an overt [reference]. There is that one song that’s kind of Pavement-ish. A big part of my aesthetic is mid-90s label Mille Pleateau. The major reference point for me is Oval. He did really glitchy, ambient music, using a physical process where he took CDs and burned CDs with different loops and then marked them up physically, put tape on them, used knives on them to make them glitch and skip in this physical, organic way. That is kind of the nexus between early digital but also physical techniques.
A lot of the more ambient moments in the soundtrack were created with loops from field recordings that I did. There are actual sounds of the ocean. A lot of my method has always revolved around taking field recordings of wherever I am, walking along the beach or wherever, and turning that into something. A lot of what’s in the film I recorded back when I was in Australia the first time a few years ago, walking along the beach, being in a moment. Obviously I’m using Ableton and current tools, but it’s also in a 90s tradition, the intersection between the early dawn of digital music when it was still fresh [and now]. That Oval stuff still sounds futuristic and cool to me and also timeless. Or, timeless in a way that definitely happened in the 90s or at some point after the 90s because computers are involved.
JA: There’s this album by Oval called 94 Diskont. I never leave home without that shit. I actually remember getting that LP at some garage sale when we were up in Columbia for school. It was a few days before 9/11. I somehow found that album and a friend of mine was like, “You should get that, that’s like a classic.” I spent a lot of time in September and October 2011 just vibing out on that because it’s very beautiful, serene. It sounds like a computer singing to itself. It’s a very self-contained kind of world. It’s really evocative, which is something I’m always trying to do musically, especially for a movie like this. So much of the movie is about mood. One of my favorite things about the movie is that it takes you to a place… it’s not a particularly dramatic or you know, professionally-acted place, but I don’t really like movies or TV shows like that. Who wants to be around professional actors? I live in LA. They are the worst people.
I like the idea of using technology from [now and then] to make something both modern and digital but also personal. It’s a really personal movie and it’s very small. It’s a low-stakes movie, which is my kind of favorite kind of movie. That lets you really get into it as a viewer and to have these moments to vibe out, a meditative quality, when there’s not a lot going on. It’s very Seinfeldian in a way.
So much of the movie is about mood … It’s not a particularly dramatic or you know, professionally-acted place, but I don’t really like movies or TV shows like that. Who wants to be around professional actors? I live in LA. They are the worst people.
The music sometimes creates this cool juxtaposition though and makes the scenes feel really high stakes. In the Iceland scenes, it seems like everything is really low stakes but there’s this frantic car-chase-scene beat, even though he’s just on vacation reading books with ponies and lounging around. It makes it seem like lounging around is really important.
JA: It’s kind of an adventure. That scene is obviously awesome. It’s interesting to see the film with an audience because that part has these weird laugh lines in it that you don’t necessarily expect. That scene is also almost the heart of the movie in a weird way. It’s the one where he’s in the most exotic location and he’s by himself. When you travel, when you’re on the other side of the world alone, you don’t really have to be doing anything to be getting into a deep vibe. And that scene is one of the deepest vibes in the film; it’s like a personal journey.
LK: It’s low stakes with high emphasis. Focusing in on these moments that otherwise might be not part of your biography but pointing to them as these crucial, dramatic moments. I think that one in particular goes beyond personal and there is this feeling that he is almost at the end of the world. That carries into the Future Warz thing too. I get what you mean John, about the low stakes thing but I feel like the movie becomes high stakes at the same time.
What’s going on in those Future Warz laser tag scenes musically?
JA: I was surprised because those are the most sort of ambient, Oval-y parts. You have these billowy clouds of blissful, noisy ambience with a steady pulse that “click-click-click,” which was actually someone in my room just tapping on something, which is almost like the glitches in the Oval stuff now that I think of it.
It’s not a song that I would have ever thought was going to score a laser tag scene. When Lev was first describing the movie to me, it was like the Future Warz stuff was this ambiguous kind of afterlife for these characters. It’s this place out of time, like in Fire Walk With Me, like the room above the store where David Bowie went and you have the dwarf man and all of the strange mystical characters in this kind of netherworld that is right there within real life that is also in an other world location. It’s the most dreamlike part of the film.
LK: I remember usually our thoughts with music are more simplistic and John builds on them. I think we had originally pictured like Mortal Kombat music but we realized there were other things John had that were more ominous and created that mood better and added to the ambiguity instead of making it an over the top, silly moment. It gave it that ghostliness, otherworldliness.
That scene where the teenagers are dancing at night to this weird electronic pop music is uncanny. You wonder, “Is this what teenagers would listen to in 1993? Why aren’t they listening to something like the Gin Blossoms or Hootie and the Blowfish?”
JA: I had no idea what to do with some of those more electronic pop influenced songs. That was one of the first scenes that everyone shot, and when I first saw it I got some goosebumps. I was like, “Oh my god, I never would have thought that this was the destiny of this song, to live in this kind of a scene.” Because it does work really well, and because of the dance and how it is shot, and because of the tension in that scene, it all works. It’s totally wrong, but it all works. At the time I was skeptical, to be honest. But it ended up being something that was much more interesting and evocative than you would expect. I feel like there are a couple David Lynch movies where stuff like that happens.
LK: As much as I love what we did, we also stole that from Twin Peaks. Like every time that they are listening to music, it’s like, they would not be enjoying this.
Whit Horn: Like when Audrey’s dancing in the diner.
LK: Yes, it’s like that. We saw that and we were like, this should happen more.
JA: Well that’s the thing. You’re in this magical world. This is not a documentary. And what could be more boring that trying to professionally recreate some bullshit?
LK: Exactly. And because the music and the dancing are a little bit ajar, it lets us focus in on that weird feeling we want to evoke instead of focusing on creating a naturalistic or plausible scene that might just pass right by you because you’re like, “Oh yeah, I remember that song.” And then you would never notice the whole vibe and the awkwardness of that moment.
JA: I guess that’s another thing. That whole scene is about this weird tension of these older dudes hanging out with these high school chicks and just feeling totally weird, pulled into this world that they don’t belong in. And you know, you think that you’re an adult and you’re gone this weekend and all of a sudden you’re dealing with these high school girls and they seem to be controlling the situation. The music works in that way because you’re like, “This isn’t right. Is this a dream?”
LK: It’s as if these girls were a small collection of vampires, it’s like that kind of feeling. It helps you feel as at a loss as the guys are.
It’s an unconsummated scene at the end.
LK: Oh yeah, they all are.
There’s also that scene where the boys are singing Mariah Carey while playing basketball. How did 90s pop music inform the filmmaking?
LK: You just can’t keep those two boys from singing to each other. We had that written in the scene but when we got there to shoot they were just doing that all day. But one thing that we were really into when we began thinking of the vibes for this film is “The Classic Project.” This video DJ made a whole series of video mixes and he makes one that’s the 90s pop mix and it’s just an hour of music videos that are also like a mixtape. It’s all really poppy and he’s South American so it especially has this global feel to it, a lot of European music. It takes you through Bjork, Britney Spears and all these different things from the 90s. When we were working with the teenagers for the “drive through” scene, we forced them to watch that a couple of time to think about dance inspirations. It was also a reference book of sorts for Whit and me.
Any other inspirations?
LK: Because we’ve worked with John a bunch of times, we have tried not to mess up his vibe by sending him too many instructions. The one thing I can think of that I know was stuck in my head the whole time we were making the movie was Hal Hartley’s theme from Trust. That kind of really simple, obviously made-for-a-movie kind of soundtrack. We had no idea what John was going to be doing but that was in my head and more than once we sent him that link.
JA: I don’t know if I watched that ever, to be honest. I guess the Twin Peaks theme, in doing the theme for the movie, not that I could make something that orchestrated and beautiful, but a simple melodic theme that can convey that sense of ambiguous longing and mystery.
LK: One thing we were trying to do with that theme in particular and with a lot of the music was to make it have this kind of in-between feeling. Like for one scene the exact same piece of music could have a way different read for the viewer than it could have in another setting. So it was like John said, having this kind of ambiguity to it and a flatness to it. There’s an emotional vibe that’s true throughout the movie no matter what the scene is. No matter what’s going on, this feeling goes on throughout it.
How would you describe the emotions and feelings throughout the film?
LK: I don’t know what that means.
JA: You know, Saudade. It’s this Portuguese word for this kind of deep longing for something that maybe never happened or didn’t exist, but this sense of loss that you feel anyway. It’s one of those vague words. I don’t have a great definition for it. It’s not nostalgia. Nostalgia is a close equivalent, but there really is no English language equivalent. Just this kind of searching longing, not for something specific that happened in the past but maybe something that you wanted and something that’s lost that you never had. It’s not a sad movie or anything but there is a wistfulness. My favorite parts are when it’s quiet. You know, when there’s a moment. I hate it when soundtracks and music are pushing you around and trying to make you feel stuff. I like having those meditative moments of vaguely wistful calm and contemplation. To me those are the core of the movie as a viewer.
LK: Yeah, I think that’s the feeling people would take away with them. As much as it’s also got all these fun moments in it, the overall vibe isn’t fun, it’s much more what John was describing. It’s wistful like, somewhere between… dread and regret both seem like too strong of words, but something like that. Maybe Saudade is the word I’ve been looking for.
You’re in this magical world. This is not a documentary. And what could be more boring that trying to professionally recreate some bullshit?
Why did you choose to riff on certain tropes that repeat in the film, like how the characters always say they feel really “mellow” or the specificity with which everyone names certain beverages? Whenever someone orders a drink it’s by name: it’s an Evian or a Snapple, or Pepsi Crystal.
LK: To some degree the repetition is sort of what Whitney and I are doing anyway, which is that we have found a very small palette basically of six or seven moves that involve the kinds of gorgeous landscape shots, being handheld, and the kind of conversation topics and the way that we shoot them. And then like rather than trying to make an epic feature that goes further than that, let’s circle in and really focus on these little things that we can play with.
The thing with the “mellow” repetition was to create a kind of rhyming continuity in the scenes and make the characters more alike than they might be otherwise by having the same words come out of their mouths. That would both unify and strip away them as being individual strong characters and instead be more part of this collective spirit that the movie is about. Doing those kinds of things that would undermine their individuality would help carry through and set up the spirit in the movie. And then the same with the beverages: this one thing can happen a lot and help tell you about the characters and the situation. Every scene can have a signature beverage. Again it’s a way to have the movie repeat itself. That was our goal, to circle back on this vibe again and again and show different facets and different colors of it; to always remind you in the middle of the movie of the beginning of the movie. You’re always circling in on the same feelings.
L for Leisure will have its New York premiere Friday, May 15th with a theatrical run at IFP’s Made in NY Media Center in Brooklyn. Showtimes here: http://www.ifp.org/rsvpmaker/l-for-leisure/#.VVOqMVZcJcQ