"Caterwaul" aired as part of the 2013 edition of "Fine Cut." A summary: An aging fisherman pursues an intimate relationship with a lobster as he struggles to find closure with his the death of his wife.
We spoke with Ian Samuels, the writer/director of "Caterwaul," about his puppetry, his time working on "Sesame Street," and lobsters.
Your body of film work relies very heavily on puppetry. What draws you to use puppets? What do you feel puppetry enables you to do for this particular story as opposed to other options such as computer-generated imagery?
There's something exciting about connecting with a puppet on screen. It's both a legitimate character in the world of the film and also an abstraction, like a blank slate, that audiences project emotions onto. Puppets are simple and honest. They're there on set with the actors and the lights, there in the environment. There's something that goes deeper than that, though. If I could be a puppet lobster creature or a CG lobster creature, I would be a puppet lobster creature.
Having the puppet on set does help. It gives the cast and crew immediate confidence to realize the scene, especially since "Caterwaul" relies heavily on tone and sensory awareness. I was able to try out different things -- How could I capture that puppet within the landscapes, interacting with the objects? Through composition and duration of shots? On the right lens?
It helps performance, too. When I was working at "Sesame Street," I was amazed at how kids and adults open up to puppets in a way they would never open up to a stranger. There's a curiosity. Puppets appear to have souls, but -- I think the key is -- they're not intimidating. George, our actor, became so intimate with the puppet to the point where he treated her on -- and off-camera as a living soul. I remember him yelling at our wonderful puppet performer, Yelena Zhelezov, to get out of the way in the bedroom scene. She was a third wheel coming between him and the creature. He was completely serious.
Who do you consider some of your greatest artistic inspirations?
I've always loved Jim Henson. I grew up with him. But it wasn't until college that I thought it would be interesting to see a Michael Haneke and Jim Henson collaboration.
For "Caterwaul," I was watching Lucrecia Martel, Claire Denis, Kelly Reichardt, Spike Jonze, Haneke -- filmmakers that capture a sensorial experience on the screen. Feelings, smells, the emotional experience of being in a place. So I was watching filmmakers that used images and sounds to capture a genuine experience of a time and place. Less traditional in terms of shooting strategy and more intuitive.
As a young person, what drew you to a story about the elderly and coping with aging and loss?
The older I get, the more I realize that emotions have little to do with age. My initial impulse to explore this character -- who is at the end of his life -- comes from my grandparents. My grandfather passed away about ten years ago, and he's still on my grandmother's answering machine greeting. His clothes are still in her house. Objects, like his chess set, are still in their places. It's like he's still living there, like he could walk into the room at any time. I was interested in the idea that there can be a presence of someone in a house through the things they leave behind.
My personal connection was from my own first and hard hitting heartbreak. I was dealing with a lot of mixed emotions about letting go. Wanting one more night with someone. One more chance. Looking for some closure. But experiencing only dissonance and dissatisfaction. There is no closure, really. So I wanted to make a film about these feelings, feelings of holding on, of wanting and wanting and wanting to the point of miming an embrace with someone who's not there -- or resurrecting a lobster creature ghost. Feelings of mourning. That, you can feel at any age.
Using the fundraising website Kickstarter, you raised over $6,000 to shoot this film. Do you feel crowd-sourcing is going to be a sustainable method for financing films in the future, both for yourself and others in the film community?
Kickstarter is fantastic, and I think it will continue to be a great financing method, but I don't think it's sustainable for the individual filmmaker. I've used it twice now, and it's mostly just family and friends and friends of friends donating so I feel like I've asked for enough. It's allowed me to passively raise money quickly without cornering anyone. It's definitely a valuable and polite financing method -- the first one or two campaigns anyway. I do get the sense that people in my community are feeling some Kickstarter fatigue.
"Caterwaul" has had quite the festival run, which is continuing this weekend at the Slamdance Film Festival in Utah. What has been your best festival experience so far? Telluride? Fantastic Fest?
Lucky for me, my film is a bit of a barometer. If a festival programs it, I know it has a certain open-minded point of view. Telluride was a little film Eden. No pretention, no competition. Just amazing films and a supportive, eager, interested, loving and professional community. Fantastic Fest was wonderful as well. A blast. What a great culture happening there in the Alamo Drafthouse. I could drink a beer and watch great films with a film-obsessed audience.
What are your thoughts on lobsters?
I love lobsters. I'm also a ginger. I'm fascinated by all the creatures on Cape Cod -- the lobsters, horseshoe crabs, hermit crabs, strange, strange monsters crawling around these macabre grassy beaches. It just seemed inevitable that a lobsterman should have a romance with one of them. I insisted on my macro lens glamour shot of the lobster in the film. It sort of expresses my thoughts on them -- there is something profound and moving about staring into the eyes of a lobster. She's thinking something in there. And she's feeling something.