Topic Magazine believes that a conversation is only as interesting as the people conversing. We are committed to highlighting, both in print and online, individuals whose daily lives provide a rich, quirky, invaluable perspective on the topic at hand.
Here, Topic's Editor in Chief chats with one of the most thoughtful young players in the movie industry. Colin Spoelman’s movie career started with a bang, as he co-founded the Yale University "not-so-secret-society" known to the world as Porn n' Chicken. Dedicated to "the joys of fried chicken and videos of people having sex," PnC quickly became legendary at Yale and beyond. The creators eventually decided to join the action and make a movie themselves. Once the PnC gang began filming The Staxxx, the American media jumped on the story of Yalies with their pants down. Premiere magazine suggested it was "just a smart way to get laid." Joel Stein reported in Time magazine that "the chicken was delicious." In the Village Voice, Tristan Taormino voiced an almost universal reaction: "Why didn’t I think of this a decade ago?" The cable network Comedy Central got down to business, hiring Spoelman and his colleagues to write their story as Comedy Central's first feature length movie.
In this Topic interview, Spoelman reflects on PnC's wild ride, previews his new work at Cyan Pictures, and explores the role of fantasy in cinema, architecture and life.
You spent your senior year at Yale focusing on pornography, and a year later you are the Executive Vice President of Development at an independent film production company. The porn interest seems to have served you well. How did you get from watching porn to making it, and then from making porn to making real movies?
The two are completely independent. Porn n' Chicken was an interesting story when George W. Bush was running for president and it seemed to touch a nerve with people. By the time it got to Comedy Central, it was more or less recognized that the whole thing was a prank (whether it actually was or not). The film itself took a deviant and counterculture idea and appropriated it for the mainstream, which, of course, caused it to lose most of its flavor.
Cyan Pictures was started by Josh Newman, who was part of that group of guys, and he took me on as his partner. That’s about as far as the coincidence goes: none of the people we met or were involved during the PnC phenomenon gave us any special advantage when trying to build Cyan as a company, but it is a production credit that we occasionally put in our bios.
But on a personal level, PnC must have been an interesting introduction to the world of contemporary media. From the initial joke to the screening of Comedy Central's first feature-length movie, was there ever a moment when you took PnC seriously?
It was interesting to watch was how seriously people were willing to take the whole thing. There were a lot of people who wanted The StaXXX to be real. Many people feel that porn is disgusting or gross, but sexuality is not and wonder why porn has to be the so dumb and formulaic when there is so much opportunity for something different. I still believe there is a way to make pornography that is intelligent, not misogynistic, and not a joke. I think that was one of the ideas we took seriously, be we were not the right people to make it a practical reality, and in the end, the idea of Porn n' Chicken was more powerful than anything we might have created.
Now, almost two-and-a-half years after the first meeting of PnC, I'm glad it's over. It's been an interesting ride, but I’m glad I can now I can focus my professional life on the kinds of films that don't involve bad dialogue and un-announced delivery guys.
Rob Walker at Nerve wrote, "While college flesh is one thing, Ivy flesh something else again." Why do you think this connection is such powerful fodder for journalists or just plain old Americans? What's the fantasy there? Well-spoken delivery guys?
Well, I don't really think there is a fantasy there for most Americans. I think the media is full of a lot of Ivy League people who heard it through the alumni grapevine and put something in their publication about it. I can only think of one author that wrote for a national publication that did not have an ivy pedigree and she went to Trinity College, which is just the same. It's perhaps a journalist's fantasy and seems to further illuminate the gap between what Americans were interested in, and what the media thought they might be. Certainly all Americans and pretty much everyone else is interested in sex, so they at least had that.
The most interesting response came from the non-Ivy campus newspapers, which picked up on the ridiculousness of there being any response at all.
Porn stars were interested too, right? Didn't one visit you?
The one "real" porn star who came to visit still has a picture of us up on her refrigerator, so I think she had a memorable time.
Did you go to the Comedy Central opening of the movie?
I missed it in order to go to my 5-year high school reunion. But I heard that Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, and Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal were there. My only regret of the whole PnC epic is that I may have missed my only chance to meet Maggie.
So now you're the Executive Vice President of Development for an independent film company. Do people know what that means, or do they look at you with blank stares?
When people ask me, "What do you do?" I still don't really know how to respond. In effect, I read screenplays, choose the ones that will make good movies, find the director and cast to make it the most successful project it can be, and then take it into production and post-production; follow it to the festivals and try to sell it to a distributor. I am basically a movie producer, but I have yet to be able to say it with a straight face.
What kind of movies is Cyan interested in making?
We want to make movies that deal with subjects that haven't been seen before or deal with subjects in a novel way. We like movies that break apart traditional Hollywood genres, and we hope to provide a nurturing environment for visionary filmmakers who tell stories that aren't re-canned versions of films I've seen before.
That's easy to say, but much harder to actually find. Most young screenwriters simply don't want to break the rules, they just want to get in the game, so you see a lot of mediocre stuff from people who might otherwise be great, but they're looking to write something safe.
What's the worst script idea you've read?
The worst script ideas are often the best ideas in the wrong hands. The worst/best idea I ever read was a law firm in New York wasn't getting any high-profile cases, so they accused some 100 year old guy in Jersey of being Hitler and then they defended him of war crimes.
You're the first production company I'm aware of that blogs its progress on an almost daily basis. Is this a way of making moving-making more transparent, or does it heighten the mystique?
Roger Avary who directed Rules of Attraction and American Psycho keeps a blog that gets a fair bit of traffic, and Kevin Smith kept an online diary during the making of Dogma. Weezer's PR people hired a dedicated blogger to write about their time in the recording studio. I'm not sure what it accomplishes for us, but publicity is certainly one thing. Our current project, I Love Your Work, came to us from someone who reads our blog. And many of the decisions made on the short film "Coming Down the Mountain" came from readers. Because your internet site is only useful if people see it, it is a great way to bring people to the site again and again. It certainly destroys some of the mystique, but there's a trend right now, spurred by DVD commentary and special features and the popular site www.imdb.com, to know the meta-story of films.
How did "Coming Down the Mountain," and its focus on contemporary Appalachia, develop?
That was a story I had written before joining Cyan. It came out of two things. First came senior year at Yale: one of the scenes I wrote for a playwrighting class was really successful, and I discovered that my long-buried Appalachian vernacular could emerge in dialogue. The second thing that helped to shape CDTM was frequent conversations with my father a minister who still lives in Kentucky telling me stories of the Oxycontin epidemic. Oxy is a prescription drug that has become abused by many people in rural parts of the country, and particularly in eastern Kentucky. I knew this was a "hook" into the story of contemporary Appalachia, which is often ignored by the national media and almost all filmmakers.
The feature-length version of the story came from my Dad, who told me about one Sunday morning when the police in my hometown loaded up about 60 alleged users of this drug onto a school bus and pruned an entire town of its citizens. The idea of a drug and addiction being so prevalent in a community was fascinating to me, and it became the truth that drove the fiction.
If a goal was to expose how depressing life can be in Appalachia today, why not film a documentary? Why fiction?
There have been literally hundreds of documentary films made about eastern Kentucky and rural Appalachia, and many of them take on a tone of paternalism or ethnographic films that hold the poverty and isolation of eastern Kentucky to be ugly or gross. These films are, at best, Walker Evans stereotypes of hardened people eeking out a noble living in a harsh land. At worst they are Diane Arbus sideshows meant to shock their audiences into pity. I wanted to get away from that, and also get away from the fiction films like Matewan, Coal Miner's Daughter, and October Sky that show a nostalgic look at the coal town days of yore. I wanted to show the problems and beauty of contemporary Appalachia from an indigenous perspective. I think the resulting film is not depressing, but shows a kind of melancholy that is uplifting, even as it is sad.
Did you ever find yourself compromising between telling a better story and 'telling it like it is'?
No, I don't think so. There are a lot of people in Appalachia who won't like the film because it deals with drug addiction and not the rotary club of Letcher County.
Also, there is no "like it is." Every community is multifaceted and you have to pick one story out of them all that is dramatic and interesting, but also one that you can tell truthfully. Every decision that you make from then on is about how to make that story real, and if you get caught up in worrying about the audience, you'll fail. I think the answer to that question is more subconscious. On some level I probably do compromise, but am not really aware of it.
How does your academic background in architecture inform the way you go about making movies?
Film is a visual medium. It's very different than, say, theater, which in my mind is closer to literature than film. Alfred Hitchcock said the greatest screenplay would have no words, only plot, and a good story will tell itself through the places, the moods set by those places, and the expressions on the actors faces. Production design which is something directors are very conscious of is probably often overlooked by the movie-watching public as an important part of movie making. But if you think of production design as casting, then it makes more sense. "I'm casting this warehouse, or this kitchen, or this Toyota truck in my film" then you begin to see how many visual choices get made and what effect they can have. Architecture, at least for me, was an introduction into visual aesthetics, and very valuable for that.
Also, like film, architecture is experienced over time you appreciate it as you are introduced to different parts of a building. A film and a building can both be about creating suspense visually, and I think the most successful buildings and films know when to surprise the viewer. Good films have secrets and then let you in on them as the film goes on, and if you've ever been curious about what is inside a building then you're dealing with a similar impulse. A haunted house is a lot like a film in that way.
One of the worst insults in contemporary architecture is to call someone's work fake. Do you think this is a helpful distinction?
No, in fact, I think that's why contemporary buildings are so ugly. People love to go to amusement parks to get away from their "real" lives and exist in a very fabricated urban and architectural environment. That connotation somehow bothers architects, but the public mobs Disneyland in increasing numbers every year. They don’t seem to mind that the architecture is fake.
I really wish production designers could have their way with architecture for a little while, and the fabulous and fantastic castles and gardens and spaceship cities would prove what architecture could do. Somehow, architects got more excited by the composition the lines on paper than the feeling of being someplace special. I think production designers and filmmakers know much more about how emotion can be heightened by the physical environment, and that architects could learn something valuable from that.
Which directors are best at engaging architecture? Which architects are best at building cinemagraphic buildings?
As far as directors go, Tim Burton is far and away the director who best uses production design to tell a story. Whether it's the design of the plastic surgeon's tools in Batman to the suburban landscape in Edward Scissorhands, Burton is hyper-aware of the way in which visual choices create the setting for emotion. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who created Amelie and Delicatessen, has also mastered design as a tool to create richer and more powerful stories. Terry Gilliam's Brazil and Rob Reiner's Toys are not masterpieces of film, but are interesting for similar reasons.
As far as cinemagraphic buildings, it's interesting that Disney (a film production company) has been so influential in promoting the careers of contemporary architects like Robert Stern, Michael Graves, and others. Walt Disney himself had always dreamed of creating the perfect utopia and drew up plans for EPCOT to be both a model for architects and urban planners and the ultimate company town. After Walt Disney died, though, the project got diluted and became something completely different. And later, Celebration was another diluted attempt to fulfill Disney’s original vision as an architect and urban planner. Disney’s work, be it film or architecture, continues to inspire many different artists, and I think he should be considered the premiere cinemagraphic arcthtiect.
Also, many of the great city planners were keyed in to the ideas of narrative and the emotional impact of physical space, things that are critical to cinemagraphic architecture. Daniel Burnham created city plans that, at least at the conceptual stage, would move between different zones of formality in a narrative progression that often culminated in a climactic beaux-arts fantasy world. Likewise, I think the New Urbanists have an eye to creating communities that are varied and that pay attention to the feeling of being in a place. It's no surprise, if you ask me, that The Truman Show was filmed at Seaside.
So now you're jumping full board into Cyan's first feature length film: I Love Your Work. What attracted you to the project?
Well, first of all, the fact that Adam Goldberg wrote and will direct the project was immediately of interest to me. I think his on-screen persona in films like Dazed and Confused, Saving Private Ryan, and A Beautiful Mind is interesting and I was curious to see how that would influence his storytelling.
Also, Adam was able to get some of his friends to work on the project, and was able to amass a group of talented people including Giovanni Ribisi, Franka Potente, Johsua Jackson, Christina Ricci, and even Elvis Costello, which will give the written characters a more interesting life and the film a higher profile at the box office.
What the hell is Elvis Costello doing in the movie?
He plays himself. The movie is about a moviestar, Gray Evans, who is completely disillusioned with his sudden star status and becomes obsessed with a younger, idealistic version of himself. His marriage to Mia Serrano, also a celebrity, is rocky at best, and her meeting with Elvis Costello (as himself) causes Gray to assume the worst. The movie is a dark psychological thriller about the difference between getting what you want and wanting what you get.
When will it be released?
That depends on when (and if) it gets picked up for distribution. The film will shoot in January, be in post-production until June, and then ready for the festival circuit. Depending on its festival success, North American release could come as early as October, or much later. Given the talent involved, I think the film will do well at festivals and has a very good chance of getting picked up by a distributor.
Well best of luck on getting what you want out of the movie. We'll be watching for updates at www.cyanpictures.com.
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to give it an early plug. I anticipate having plenty more to say about it as we get deeper into the project.
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