My day-to-day is often mundane, filled with things that no other person would give a shit about: work, shopping, texting friends, and running random errands. If I wanted to, I might be able to spin my day into something interesting, but I'd need to come at it with some Cool Luke vibes or shake up how the story's told. By no means is it unfamiliar territory for filmmakers to address life's monotony or attempt naturalism in their work. Hell, there's an entire movement dedicated to it called mumblecore.
However, it's those rare films that transform the ordinary into extraordinary, whether it's through story or style, that make people want to talk about their life and dig in. I'm reminded of John Cassavetes and the Dardenne Brothers who shook up their stories with invigorating techniques. With his latest short film, Cutaway, filmmaker Kazik Radwanski tries to address those everyday moments in life and weave them into something revealing, potent, and true. He says he did this by going at the story "sideways" using, as the title implies, cutaway shots.
In film, a cutaway shot tends to not contribute anything substantial to the story, but rather is used by editors to piece together a scene that might not be working properly. Generally, the shot is of something routine that further illustrates what the main shot is trying to convey. However, in Radwanski's short, the entire story is comprised exclusively of cutaways. By doing this and filming only close-ups of a pair of male hands working construction, texting on his phone, perusing department-store aisles, taking whiskey shots, or playing video poker, a story begins to form. With no traditional reference points to this person's appearance, voice, or life, these small stitched together moments of hesitation, tenderness, and frustration allow us to build his story for ourselves. Cutaway succeeds by using one of the most pedestrian film-editing techniques to probe life's quotidian moments. In doing so, it shifts your perspective, showing how something usually overlooked can actually be worth watching.
Radwanski's now a seasoned short-film veteran with five under his belt, Cutaway being his latest. In 2012, he directed his first feature film Tower, which played at Locarno and Toronto International Film Festivals, as well as New Directors/New Films presented by MoMA. It's an aggressive black comedy about a 34-year-old balding loser who attempts to rid his parent's garage of a pesky raccoon. The film is intense, mesmerizing, and hard to deal with in the best ways. On September 13, his newest feature film How Heavy This Hammer will have its World Premiere at the 40th Toronto International Film Festival.
With both Cutaway and his first feature Tower debuting online this week and his newest film premiering at TIFF, I thought I'd chat up director Kazik Radwanski about his work.
VICE: What came first, the idea for how you were going to shoot this film or the idea for the film?
Kazik Radwanski: I think what came first was a tone that I wanted to capture. I was in a weird headspace. I was about to make my second feature, and it was temporarily put on hiatus. There was a mood or feeling I was after, and I didn't want anything to disturb it. This lead to the film having such a narrow focus. I like giving myself rules or restraints. It's strangely liberating. It's like you give yourself an arena to experiment within. All of the dialogue, story, or things like that came later through the making of the film.
What was it about the "cutaway" shot that made you want to make a film employing only that technique?
It's a feeling I've always liked. I think it's in my other work. Quite often the camera will hold on the protagonist, and we'll only get a partial sense of other characters or surroundings. There's also a mysterious feeling of showing something but then implying that more is going on offscreen. I like the sensation of only grasping the content of a scene, but feeling an emotional weight. I think specifically with this film, I wanted to approach things sideways through cutaways. I couldn't look at the themes or content directly at first. I had to find my way in through close-ups of him working. Then more content and story started to bleed out. It's sort of like working with your head down.
Your films typically go against the grain of traditional storytelling. What is it about difficult characters and different styles of storytelling that gets you off?
I always like to inject chaos into my films. I want my characters to be difficult or unpredictable because I think that's truer to life and more worthwhile. I don't want us to have the upper hand over the characters. I don't want people to be able to sit back and judge them. Or, for it to be too sympathetic. I want us to be unbalanced and constantly readjusting.
Are you ever going to make a straight comedy? Or is that boring to you?
Laughter is one of the most complex reactions. I love it when people laugh at certain moments in my films. I'm not sure if that will ever translate into me making a straight comedy, but I like comedies. Sometimes I feel like moments in my films aren't too far off from something like Curb Your Enthusiasm.
You've had three short films screen at the Toronto International Film Festival, your last feature played at TIFF, and now your newest feature is playing at TIFF on September 13. Are you as obsessed with Canada as they are with you?
I don't know if I'm obsessed with Canada. I don't set out to make Canadian films. I think it would be a mistake to do that because it's so hard to define what Canada is. I'm first-generation Canadian, and my parents are from England. I do instinctively make films about what I know. I want to make films in houses I recognize or about jobs I know. For instance, construction is my family's business. I definitely hope to keep making films here in Canada. More specifically, in the east end of Toronto, where I grew up.
What are you working on next?
I'm writing my third feature at the moment. Before that's done, I'll likely have made a short or two. I hope to keep making shorts regularly.
Jeffrey Bowers is a tall mustached guy from Ohio who's seen too many weird movies. He currently lives in Brooklyn, working as a film curator. He's the senior curator for Vimeo's On Demand platform. He has also programmed at Tribeca Film Festival, Rooftop Films, and the Hamptons International Film Festival.