Ray Tintori’s life sprang from the seed of a film editor. His mother, a script supervisor, carried him in her cinematic womb for nine months, until he burst forth sometime during the beginning of the Reagan administration. As could be expected, Ray traveled around a lot as a kid. He accompanied his parents from set to set absorbing the art of filmmaking.
Death to the Tinman, his senior thesis film at Wesleyan (and perhaps one of my favorite short films ever) premiered at Sundance in 2007 where it won a short filmmaking award. He’s been busy since then, not only as the director of several MGMT videos, but as a co-writer for Glory at Sea, which won numerous awards at festivals across the country. Most recently, he was selected by Spike Jonze to direct an adaptation of the Shane Jones novel, Light Boxes. I sat down with Ray to talk about film and crap.
Vice: I really like how your films tell great and sometimes heartbreaking stories without taking themselves too seriously. It seems like a lot of indie filmmakers would have gone the more melodramatic route where you’ve taken what seems like a purposely stilted approach. Is there a reason behind that style?
Ray: Yeah, I think that sometimes young filmmakers feel like they need to prove themselves by tackling issues that are really older people’s stories. So you end up getting these festivals with a ton of films by really young kids trying to tell stories about middle-aged people going through traumatic, angst-ridden moments in their life, but you get the feeling that the filmmakers actually have no first-hand knowledge of living through any of those things. So while they’re trying to be truthful, it ends up ringing very false. I recently taught a class at the University of Virginia and one of the things I said to the students was to recognize their own level of immaturity and try to make films that knowingly operate on that level. The emotions in Tinman are essentially teenage emotions. I made it in college, and a lot of that story was based on experiences I had when I was in high school and the way I felt about people who I was involved with romantically. I had just enough distance on those kind of teenage, rip-your-heart-out to prove your love for someone kind of feelings that I could make a film about it and both really empathize with it, but also have a critical distance of what that usually leads to. In the end, that kind of behavior is not how you make someone love you again. He doesn’t get the girl back. He tears the community apart and brings about the rapture.
Yeah, one of my favorite things about that film is how his feelings are never really reciprocated after he turns into that freakish hunk of tin.
I wanted to do a story where an act of self-sacrifice isn’t rewarded by the hero getting what they want. Ultimately, he gives up his heart, which is this huge gesture but it results in almost nothing. There are way too many pro-sacrifice narratives out there already and I think they’re actually really corrosive. I didn’t want to have any part in that. But I think the films are highly melodramatic in a silent film kind of way. I like melodrama that knows what it is and plays with the freedom that being a melodrama gives you, rather than something that thinks it’s kitchen sink realism but is in fact really contrived. All narrative movies are essentially about as real as a sock-puppet show. You can either have fun with that or not. The acting style, which I’ve heard people refer to as stilted or dead-pan, mostly comes from the fact that my main advice to actors has always been to play it as straight as possible. Whether it’s the two characters in Jettison Your Loved Ones talking about overthrowing the government or Andrew VanWyngarden shooting an arrow with a stick of dynamite at a crab monster that explodes into thousands of dolphins, I’ve always told my performers that the straighter they play it, the funnier it’ll be.
I like the sound of that perpetual motion doohickey in Jettison Your Loved Ones but I don’t have any idea what it is.
A perpetual motion machine is something that doesn't exist, and can't really exist because of the whole "energy cannot be created or destroyed" thing. That part of Jettison Your Loved Ones came from a story I had read about David Lynch in that book Lynch on Lynch, which is totally excellent by the way. When he was an art student he was always telling people that he had invented a perpetual motion machine, something that even Einstein could never figure out. But Lynch was totally certain he had cracked it. He even went to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and tried to explain this world-changing, major breakthrough he had discovered to a scientist, thinking that he was sitting on something that would basically revolutionize society. The guy very patiently and politely explained to him why he was totally out of his mind and how his plan was delusional on multiple fronts and then sort of sent him out into the cold. I just really loved that level of confidence that a totally irrational person could have and found it really, deeply charming. I wanted to make a film about those kinds of people.
How did you get into making films?
I grew up on film sets. My mom was a script supervisor and my dad was an editor. So my sister and I kind of traveled around like army brats and spent a lot of time just sort of bumming around film sets as little kids, checking out everything. I always thought I wanted to be a visual artist or a writer and I initially pursued that pretty seriously. Eventually I got tired of the static quality of most visual art and the incredibly lonely aspect of fiction writing. Film is great because you get to do a lot of the same stuff you would in either of those fields but you're surrounded by your friends and your work isn't just sitting in a gallery.
You co-wrote Glory at Sea right?
The credit I have on that film is a co-story writing one with the director Benh Zeitlin. Most of the writing input I had on the film was very early on, when Benh was working on the fundamental plot points and the arc of the story from the first germs of the narrative, sort of structuring out the basic fairy tale. Benh and I have been collaborating for about seven years now.
At first I thought it was going to be a heavy-handed statement on Katrina and I was sort of scared, but it actually seems like more of a story about very different people coming together to accomplish something great, with the storm as a backdrop instead of the main focus.
Yeah, we weren’t trying to make a sort of pious, lefty boilerplate film about how the storm was George Bush’s fault or something like that, although I do think the film is quite political in it’s own way. We were more interested in making something that felt like a new myth. Because essentially the story is more like a fairy-tale or something along those lines, but set in a landscape that was so obviously real, where you could basically feel the grit on each one of the pieces of debris.
I could almost feel the grit on the actors as well. Their faces had the worn look of people who have seen some shit. Where’d you find them?
The whole cast was non-actors. A lot of the story of the film was influenced by the process of making the film. As we were doing pre-production we had a huge series of open casting calls and a lot of the people who ended up being in the film were people we met in bars and places like that. When we met people, Zeitlin would restructure the characters around who those people were and write a lot of their own stories into the film. We were driving around the city collecting debris to build the boat out of and keeping it in our backyard. The actor who played Sgt. Major showed up with a bunch of stuff in his truck and was like, “I found these. I thought you might want to put them on the boat.” And we were like, “Yeah, put it on the boat.” That kind of continued and led to the whole part of the film where everyone in the community brings their own stuff and latches it onto the boat until it becomes this kind of shrine.
It was sort of about Katrina though, right?
Without a doubt. It’s actually more about the character of the city and about the very specific way in which people deal with tragedy down here. The film is really about figuring out how to respond when confronted with overwhelming tragedy or horror in your own life. The devastation was so biblical in nature that there were a lot of people who actually believed God was trying to send a message to this historically hedonistic city. When confronted with something like that, do you retreat and try to atone for your sins that have brought this about, or do you start to re-establish your community with the same wild hedonistic energy and try to recover what you’ve lost, even if it seems like an insane plan doomed to fail.
I really like the urgency in the film. Everyone hauls ass while they’re building the boat. Was that stuff in the screenplay, or was that more of a directorial decision? What was the reason behind the rush?
I know that we always wanted the film to have the feeling of something that was just snowballing and gaining its own momentum as people begin to believe that they can actually save their loved ones, that they can defeat death itself. It was supposed to build in the kind of way that mass hysteria does. But yeah, it’s a race against time to rescue the people you care about the most. That seems like a pretty good reason to act with a sense of urgency.
Do you like making films or music videos better?
The main difference is that the films are your own things, where the videos are a supporting part of someone else’s artistic project. Music videos can be incredibly fun to make when the band has a really strong idea of what they want to communicate and a strong understanding of who they are. Working with MGMT is really fun because they are old friends and we get to collaborate on every level of the videos from the concept stage to the final edit. Their ideas are often really counterintuitive but you’re able to trust that they’ll work. Music videos have been fun for me because I’ve gotten a lot of experience actually running sets and trying out different aesthetic approaches to different projects. There’s a lot of stuff we tried on the videos that I don’t know if I would have done if it were a narrative project that I had developed for over a year. It’s also fun to make stuff that gets seen by so many people. No matter how good a short film is, there’s a fairly small audience for those things. Reading the comment boards on some of the videos we’ve made that have millions of views is really interesting because they’re getting out to such different kinds of people, even if sixty percent of the responses are along the lines of “That’s the gayest thing I’ve ever seen,” or “What drugs do you think these guys were on when they made this?”
That’s a pretty badass flame scene at the beginning of "Kids". How’d you do that? Are you a pyromaniac?
That’s stock footage of a barrel rolling through a wall of fire. I think the idea was to have it sort of be a reference to the opening titles of T2: Judgement Day, and definitely Wild at Heart, which is one of my absolute favorite films. We wanted the opening to be as pretentious as possible so people would think they were about to see some kind of requiem for a generation or something. The music is actually a string quartet playing the melody of "Kids," which was an old recording I had from when we were all at Wesleyan. I always thought that piece of music was really funny and that it would be really funny to set this video up as if it was going to be this massive spectacle and then cut to a baby in a crib getting the living daylights scared out of it. At the beginning of that video we attributed a Nietzsche quote to Mark Twain and I couldn’t believe how many people got pissed off. I had no idea there were so many incredibly humorless Nietzsche fans out there who watched MGMT videos. I actually had to write a letter to the estate of Mark Twain explaining the joke to them and getting them to sign off on it, because the label was worried that we were going to be sued for libel.
Yeah, Nietzsche fans can be total assholes. What’d you do to that kid to make him cry?
Anyone who's spent a sizable amount of time around an 18-month-old baby knows that crying is pretty much what they do all day. They can't really talk. It's their only form of communication. So the difficult was that Zachary would often be laughing when we needed him to cry, and vice versa. He was a lovely kid, but the communication between us was limited, to say the least. But it wasn't like we needed to actually terrorize him to make him cry. It was a big video, so we followed all the child welfare laws really carefully and Zach definitely understood that the monsters were puppets and was goofing around with them. I have a picture of myself as a baby weeping in Dan Ackroyd's arms on the set of Ghostbusters 2. Even though I was a Ghostbusters zealot, it just freaked me out to have this weird guy picking me up. So I totally understand. I just hope that kid grows up to be a gigantic Joanna Newsom fan.
I cannot fucking believe you got the Rock-afire Explosion from Showbiz Pizza to play in the "Electric Feel" video, where’d you find those guys?
Andrew initially wanted to have a ton of animated hillbilly bears composited into that video in a style like this totally rad film Butterfly Ball. As we were working on that plan, Jordan Fish sent me a YouTube video of something Chris Thrash had made, where he programmed a full Rock-afire Explosion set-up to play along to Usher's "In the Club". It was one of the most disturbing things I had ever seen. I was able to contact Aaron Fetcher, the inventor of Rock-afire Explosion through his YouTube account and to my surprise, he was totally into MGMT and game for the whole thing. I never thought we would be able to clear the rights for this family-friendly thing, considering the band was taking acid and talking about doing heroin while holding babies in the previous videos. But Aaron was super excited about the whole idea.
Spike Jonze recently announced that you’ll be directing Light Boxes. How did that come about and have you started working on it?
I think Spike liked the "Kids" video and then found out about the other stuff I had made from there. I started working on that and some other ideas with him over the past summer and fall.
Are you working on anything else right now?
Right now, I'm living in New Orleans, working on Zeitlin's film and writing my own stuff. I’m doing a couple of videos later in the summer. Last month I taught a short college course on filmmaking at the University of Virginia, which was totally surreal and lovely. It was bizarre to pretend to be a professor for a week and a half, but the students were totally inspiring and really knocked me out with the films they made. I'd like to do more of that in the future. I also camera operated a feature film for this really exciting director Kentucker Audley, which was great. It was a three-week feature shoot. We went from New York, to Lexington, to Memphis, to New Orleans. It was a style of filmmaking pretty much the polar opposite of the stuff I've previously done, but that's what made it fun. I'm also doing a re-write on a feature script and working on a variety of other things as I’m getting ready to do my next narrative project.