Bryan Reisberg first showed his debut film, Big Significant Things (covered in my first dispatch from Independent Film Festival Boston), at SXSW, went on to screen it at the Indie Grits festival in Columbia, South Carolina, and – immediately following his time at IFFB – will show it at the Santa Fe Film Festival. He’s a busy guy, in other words, which is a good thing – Big Significant Films is the kind of small-scale film that deserves a big-screen presentation.
I met with Bryan on a rainy day in Davis Square, Somerville, to talk about the film, his background, his relationship with star Harry Lloyd, the ins and outs of crossing cultural borders, and America’s obsession with self-distraction:
Movie Mezzanine: Watching a movie like this, I kind of think to myself, “Where does a story like this come from? It can’t be that the filmmaker just sat down and came up with this quirky conceit.” It feels like something personal, like something that maybe you thought of doing yourself. Is this something that came up at any point in your life, or something you’ve actually done?
Bryan Reisberg: No, I never actually did it, thank God.
I went to school in New York, I live in New York, and a lot of my friends like going out, as many people my age do – I’m twenty five, and this was when I was twenty three – and I was out at a bar downtown, I lived uptown, and I had a particularly shitty night, and I was like, “screw it, I’m gonna walk home”, for whatever melodramatic reason. It was like a two hour walk home, as opposed to a train ride, and I started thinking, “What if I just left? What if I totally dropped everything?” And I also lived with my girlfriend, who’s now my fiancee.
It was a weird thought for me to have because I’m a totally normal, middle class Jew from Maryland, like, nothing was wrong, nothing was ever really that wrong. So instead of thinking about, for two hours, the kind of bullshit I would do, working from place to place, within two minutes it devolved into this logistical nightmare. I would have to get on the phone with customer service at Sallie Mae and defer my loans, I would have to set up online bill payments for all of my bills. It was like a nightmare, thinking of everything I would have to do.
A lot of my favorite movies are films from the ’70s like Five Easy Pieces, Paper Moon, The Last Picture Show, and also a lot of Billy Wilder, but thinking about those movies from the ’70s, they dealt with similar themes. That was a time in the country where there was either a lot to run away from, or to go and fight for, so thinking about being a normal, totally fine Jew from Maryland who had a roof over his head and a fine job, it became a really funny idea to me. So that’s where this came from.
MM: I’m a little curious – so you had this idea, that background, in your head, and if I’m not mistaken there were a couple of shorts you’d done before making this film?
BR: There was one short, yeah.
MM: So how did you ultimately come to the point where you were making this movie?
BR: Usually, a lot of my colleagues will make a few shorts, maybe they’ll make a feature, and they work up to it, but I was fortunate that in film school I met Andrew Corkin, who produced the film, and he’s also my production company partner. He’s a few years above me. So, while I was in school and then after school, I worked in advertising, and I did, like, videos, and commercials, and short form stuff. But at the time, he co-produced Afterschool, which was Antonio Campos’ first feature, and then he did Martha Marcy May Marlene, which was Sean Durkins’ first feature, and then he did We Are What We Are – well, our company did We Are What We Are – which was Jim Mickle’s third feature. So he was well-versed in the indie-producing world, which was very fortunate for me, because it helped me get Big Significant Things off the ground despite my being so young and not having too much under my belt.
I also had a relationship with Harry Lloyd before we started. I had worked with him on a previous project, or I was in touch with him about a previous project, and I kept his email. So I sent him the script, and he loved it. You know, when you combine a really good producer with talent like that, we were really lucky to get the financing as quickly as we did.
MM: I was actually going to ask about Harry. I think for a lot of people who aren’t familiar with him outside of Game of Thrones, this role is going to be an enormous shock. It’s such a transformation for him. You talk about the nightmare of logistics, and he portrays that struggle really well. How did you coax all of that out of him? Taking him from Viserys Targaryen to Craig, who’s such a nice, neurotic but nice, guy is such a huge leap.
BR: Well, there’s a great pedigree there. There’s a foundation that anybody in my position would love to deal with, because he’s a very intelligent person. I mean, he comes from Eaton and Oxford out in the UK, and he comes from a theater background, so there’s a lot there to work with. You know, this was his first starring role in a film, so he took it quite seriously, to the point where it’s almost like, for me, to hear somebody read your words and take them seriously…
MM: No big deal, right?
BR: It’s no big deal! I mean, he took it very seriously, and you know, that’s who you want going into battle with you on a film like this, because it’s a low-budget production, and it’s basically, you know, every day it’s just me and him kind of going to war with all of the obstacles. So when I wrote the script, I didn’t send him the first draft, obviously, but I sent him an early iteration of the script, and then he got really into it. He actually came to the States, and we shot ideas back and forth because the way I wanted to work was very in-tune with the way he would like to work as an actor. For somebody in his shoes, he came from Game of Thrones, and Iron Maiden, and other bigger productions, so I don’t think he’d ever really gotten his feet really that wet in a low-budget production, to the point where he could really explore and experiment. So it was an incredible gift, not only for me for the first feature, but for him as well, because we were able to experiment, and discover things, and adapt.
I brought him to my house, he hung out with my family a few times, he got into fights with my sister a few times. So we had enough conversations that the veneer on either side just started to get whittled away, to the point where we were really, really honest with each other. There was a lot of exploring each other, and the limits of who he is as a person, and the character he was going to play, and finding out how far we could go with it. We were both in a situation where we were discovering things, because I had never been down to the South. We spent about six weeks down there before we even shot anything, basically going around and talking character, “What would you do here, what would you do there?” Because you’re going to run into a hundred problems over the course of the day, and if you know where you’re going and where you need to end up, then everything in the middle is just fodder.
So we had, essentially, benchmarks at certain points. If something changes here, how would Craig react to it? To Harry’s credit, he became incredibly rooted in his character to the point where it’s like, “Here’s a problem,” and he didn’t even have to think twice about how to solve it. He became this character, and for a production like this, that’s what you want, you want him to take the character off your hands. So I just had to sit there and watch.
MM: Sounds easy!
BR: Yes, it was incredibly easy. [laughs] I’m kidding.
MM: It’s interesting that this was the first time you’d been to the South. I tend to feel like when films of this manner set themselves in the South, there’s almost a light sneering toward the culture, and I didn’t feel like Big Significant Things did that at all. Did you feel a fondness for the locations and for the people Craig runs into on his journey? Did you develop an affection for them?
BR: The easy thing as a Northerner, and especially as a liberal, is to have that sneering there, and I feel like unless you’re dealing with a very specific topic, you know, some of it’s justified. Some of my favorite films come from Alexander Payne, and lot of the criticism about his films is that he condescends to his characters, but that’s where he grew up. He has an incredible love for those people. Like, a film like Citizen Ruth, with the pro-lifers and the pro-choicers, there’s an acidity there. His comes from a place of love, and this comes from a place of love too. I wasn’t about to sneer, and turn my nose up at a place that I didn’t understand. I couldn’t make the same film, but you could add the same tone to what you’re doing. Mine just wouldn’t be as founded because it’s not where I grew up.
So it was there. The earlier iterations, the acidity to how I took the characters was there, and it was there for the first few weeks of being in the South. But it would have been a different film, because, you know, being in the South, they were some of the kindest people we’d ever met, but that’s because we only had time to get to their doorstep. You know what I mean? So for somebody like Craig, for somebody who is only up to the doorstep of these people, you’ll never really hear anybody give their point of view on traditional values or religion, because you just don’t get that far. When you do get that far in the South, sure, there’s a whole other movie there, there are two other movies I could have made by the time I was done.
There’s an incredibly big Jewish population down there, so there was one night I’d wanted to go to a Shabbat dinner, and I’m pretty sure if I’d gotten there that it would have been a completely different experience. You sit around the dinner table with these people, and it’ll come out. That would be a different movie. It would have been an incredibly volatile movie, to really get in deep and dig into these people in terms of Southern mentality versus a Northern mentality, but that’s just a completely different film. So for something like this, it was very important to try and not insert my opinion, because I don’t think it would be fair.
MM: Would you ever think about going back and making one of those films someday?
BR: Oh, absolutely. I would love to. Once you’re done making the first one, you kind of look back and think, “Well, I could have gotten a little bit more ambitious here.” I made the movie I wanted to make, and I’m really proud of the movie I wanted to make, but you know, the more you know about these different cultures you involve yourself in, I think there’s more you want to say about them. But that’s not what this movie was.
MM: I was wondering what influenced you in terms of developing the movie’s visual sense? What helped shape your aesthetic?
BR: The DP who shot it, his name is Luca Del Puppo, he’s an AFI graduate, and he’s Italian, which is also incredibly important to me. [laughs] We looked at a lot of photography, we looked at a lot of Stephen Shore, a lot of William Eggleston – they were big color photographers in the 60s and 70s that had incredibly bold compositions of the American South, and also the Midwest, and they were very satirical and humorous in their portrayal of the country. There were a lot of those guys, and a lot of the filmmakers from the 70s, a lot of Gordon Willis, of course, watching All the President’s Men and all these movies from the golden era of cinema. You look at the way these guys literally composed the visuals that we think about, like The Deer Hunter – that’s American history!
So because we were working inside of that construct of genre, we wanted to take a lot of visuals that were representative of that. Billy Wilder, one thing he did a lot in his films the 50s and 60s that I think is incredibly important, is that he was working with a lot of stereotypes directly. He would take the audience’s trust in what they’re seeing in this very comfortable place, and he would build upon that trust and ultimately break it. So it was important to essentially stay pretty traditionally confined within a visual design. This is a bold, colorful America that I think lends itself ultimately to the humor and the deprecation that occurs at the end of the film. I can say this because he did, but I think Luca did an incredible job, and for my two cents, America is a beautiful place, but it’s also a confounding, confusing, dark, shitty place, and that’s a terrifying thing when you start to come to that realization growing up, or at any age.
You know Nebraska, which is one of my favorite films from last year – our composer actually did the score for Nebraska, which was wonderful. I mean at any age, when you discover that there’s a discrepancy between the man you want to be and the man you are, just like the country you think you live in versus the country you actually live in, I think that’s unsettling thing to discover. Hopefully that’s in the film visually, and more than visually.
MM: Well, it’s definitely a movie about shattering illusions and shifting perceptions. Talking about everything that lies underneath America and Americana, obviously for Craig, all of those roadside attractions are just distractions for him so that he doesn’t have to face up to his responsibility as a man, but fitting those into what you were just saying about America, what do those mean to you as a filmmaker?
BR: What do distractions mean to me?
MM: The world’s largest cedar bucket, the world’s largest rocking chair – how do those fit into the idea of America being a beautiful, confounding place?
BR: I think there’s a lot about this country, not to get too political – like, the book I’m reading now, a while I’d read Confederates in the Attic, and now I’m reading a book called Race and Reunion, and every time I read these books, my fiancee hates it. It’s about the Civil War in the American memory, which is really interesting to me, this history of revising things as we see fit, as we need them. These are things that just exist, and it’s almost everything that I’ve put into these large objects. While we were shooting at the world’s largest frying pan, we had a family, this woman and her two kids, and they came up, looked really dazzled by it, and then they left. I think there’s a lot – and I’m trying not to sound too preachy in my opinions – I think it’s a country where people welcome distraction, and they like distraction whether they openly welcome it or they just accept it. I grew up in a house where my parents were extremely protective of me, and my brother and my sister, to the point where their business was their business and they brought it home less. And I woke up one day when I was sixteen with police raiding our house. This was Bethesda, Maryland. I mean, we weren’t as wealthy as the rest of the people in Bethesda, we were a pretty common middle class family, but we had police raiding our house.
That’s a pretty shattering discovery, when you realize that your father was involved in certain things over the past five years, and you start to discover certain things about your family that you didn’t know. My brother is eight years older than me, and I would hear things from him about how we didn’t sell the car, the car got repossessed. It’s almost pretty close to being metaphorical for how I grew up learning about the Civil War versus what I know now. It’s very strange to rewrite your past based on the information given to you in the future, and it’s the sort of thing that, when you know that’s coming and you get enough of it, I’ve certainly done this before, I’ve taken vacations to not deal with certain things that were happening, whether it’s student loans or deferring student loans. I think it’s natural, not just in this country, but a way of growing up. It’s an incredible mountain of shit that you’re constantly climbing, and I’m just discovering this.
So yeah, they exist, they’re completely pointless, they’re completely useless, but they provide people with something. Something, I don’t know what it is. It provides me with something, it provides you with anything, anything at all.
MM: Well, they provided you with the backdrop for a movie!
BR: There you go!