Who Is Zachary German?
Shitty Youth is a new documentary by Adam Humphreys about Zachary German. Zachary is a young author whose novel Eat When You Feel Sad was published when he was 21, and who, as a person, is known to be, well, socially bizarre. The film takes its name from a radio show Zachary puts on in his apartment in Greenpoint, which was formerly called Every Time a Police Officer Gets Shot I Throw a Party. It’s a fun, compelling look at a very particular human brain. You can watch the whole thing below.
VICE: Why did you decide to make a documentary about Zachary?
Adam: I liked Zachary's web presence a lot. I thought he seemed extremely smart and funny and sort of cruel in a way I found enormously compelling. I think he had a sort of iconoclastic quality, which was pretty impressive to me, as he was really, really young. We became good friends around the time he was releasing his book, so I had "access" as they say.
The idea for the film came from Z's radio show. I was really interested in the people who were calling in, and the way Zachary was managing (and sort of destroying) his relationship with the people who were his "audience."
Also, Z seemed like a character unlike any I have seen in other docs. I guess I didn't know what would happen with him, but I was interested enough to follow along. Can a documentary film be made about a writer? A writer with only one book? A writer so young? Who is obviously an extremely difficult person to deal with and is already so hyper-self-aware of his own representation?
Usually in “character driven” films the protagonist has some identifiable goal, a social cause, something emotional and life affirming. Making a film about someone like Z seemed like the opposite of that. Would it work? I thought about all of this stuff a lot.
The hyper-self awareness thing is really interesting. In the film Zach seems pretty candid when speaking directly, but you also get to see how bizarre and difficult he can be in the way he acts while doing the radio show. How much did you have to shoot—or maybe in what way were you shooting—to feel like you were capturing everything you wanted to see?
My initial strategy was to—and this sounds kind of violent and ugly, but it was exactly the word that kept going through my head—"trap" Zachary's character by showing what he was giving to his audience through that radio show. I wanted to produce a rare creature, a totally unique film.
I shot ten episodes of Shitty Youth using varied styles of framing and camera movement. I shot a bunch of B-Roll stuff around that time of Zachary doing what he does—walking dogs. I interviewed him several times over the span of a year or so. We went to Atlantic City twice. Nothing made sense. There was no arc or feeling of progress, just sarcasm, juvenilia, "kill yourself."
I stopped wanting to shoot the radio show, and Zachary stopped doing the radio show soon thereafter. I had wanted to do something about his particular "psychic domain," but it seemed the real world consequences of his attitude (an attitude that I understand and even may have fetishized) were becoming more and more apparent in real, chronic, and un-filmable ways.
I was able to finish Shitty Youth only when Alec Niedenthal invited Zachary down to his school to read with Megan Boyle nearly two years after I started. Zachary was Alec's third choice as a reader—two other people had declined. At this time he was seeing Megan. I decided to go with Zachary on the train. I told him, "This ends now. This is the climax. Whatever you do now is the climax of the film. I'm not going to do this anymore."
It took longer after that, but by then I was happy and confident that I had some kind of arc (a concept he calls "low-brow" in the film). I had found some cause and effect. Zachary's reading at the end was tremendously cathartic and exciting for me.
I just read Hunger, and think Zachary sort of had a Hunger thing going on. Hamsun’s protagonists, like Z, carry charisma and power but do weird and taboo things that startle and grate on people. They just don't get along and can't get along.
Here's something I've often wondered about Zach: How much of the way he acts do you think is calculated, or at least intentionally designed to cause a reaction of some sort in others, and how much is real? I ask because sometimes he clearly seems to be doing things for a response, but there's something else in there. Did you ever see walls come down or behaviors you weren't expecting?
This question gets at what I view as the true impetus behind my endeavor, and it is a very hard question to answer.
For Zachary the space between performance and not performance is very murky and unknowable, and that is the ground I was hoping to locate—to sort of test. Looking back, this seems misguided.
Zachary is both 100 percent real and 100 percent full of shit, always. In real life and online; in social situations and on camera. His most enduring and consistent trait is continual revolt: revolt against art, revolt against literature, revolt against his representation in the film, revolt against all expectations of him, revolt against himself.
Interesting. So in what way did that clash come out during the making of the film? How did he revolt against you, and how did you handle that?
We didn't really clash in specific ways during the making of the film. Whenever I was coming to shoot something we had usually pre-arranged it. Abstractly, in some sense, I was trying to make some narrative or story from his life—I was treating him like a character, a subject, and not an autonomous human. I had some pre-existing idea about what the film would be and mean. I wanted to make a really good film, tell a story. He was just living his life. I guess there was a conflict between my ambition to have his story mean something, to resonate with people, and him half wanting to be left alone. I handled this by backing off.
Sometimes he would say stuff like, "What do you want from me?" in a confrontational way and I would say, "I don't know." All of this seemed to make the film more interesting, to me.
Personally and on Gchat he has expressed dislike for me a number of times. I don't mind at all. He tells everyone he thinks they suck. I met Giancarlo DiTrapano at a party recently, and he said that Zachary had come and introduced himself one day by telling Gian he didn't like him. Like, "Hi, I'm Zachary. I know about you and I don't like you."
Could you talk a bit about how the film's editing went, and how sculpting your footage in particular ways worked to exhibit a desired result regarding Zach's representation in the film?
Editing was hard and took a long time. Sometimes I thought the whole film was totally hilarious one day and then utterly bleak the next.
I still feel like that. I like the way some scenes work together in sequence, and I do think there is an arc. It is subtle, but it is there.
I think it would be cool to make another film like this in a few years. That is a very interesting idea to me, like the 7 Up films, except with just one person. I think the filmmaking part would be a lot easier the next time around, should I choose to do that.
Previously by Blake Butler - The Dark Logic of Clarice Lispector