Love is pretty much the main theme of most novels, songs, and movies. It's complicated and weird and fun and terrible, so it makes for good inspiration. It's no surprise then that when you've got a new talent searching the horizon for stories, they'll undoubtedly land on love as a topic. This is the case with bright-eyed young filmmaker Michael Lukk Litwak, who took on the daunting task of distilling all the absurdity and passion of love into ten minutes for his NYU undergraduate thesis film.
How does Litwak pull this off? If I told you it was with the help of gigantic, prehistoric sharks, spaceship submarines, and T. rexes armed with lasers, would that make sense? No, probably not. But love doesn't make sense either. Litwak's film is delightfully theatrical and wins you over with over-the-top costumes, fantastical set pieces, a swirling folk opera score, and deadpan dialogue. The film is imperfect, like your first love—but like your first love, you'll remember it fondly despite its flaws.
Below the film, check out my interview with Litwak. If you like the film, I highly recommend going over to Michael's website and checking out his behind-the-scenes featurette. Over 100 students worked on this short film. That's crazy.
VICE: Hey Michael. Are you a romantic?
Michael Lukk Litwak: Yes, it's a blessing and a curse.
Your film captures the same awe and wonder that the collective Court 13 conjures in their work. Were their films like Death to the Tinman and Beasts of the Southern Wild big influences on you?
I remember seeing Death to the Tinman when I was a freshman at NYU and being blown away by the energy and vibe of it. But quickly thereafter I also saw a lot of people that were trying to imitate it. I made a conscious effort to make sure my film was different, but that the awe and wonder that is inherent to all of my favorite movies still made it through. I think both of those movies are inspiring because they tell a great story, and they do it simply and with a low budget, which is what every filmmaker wants.
Can you talk a bit about your process?
It's something that is constantly evolving, but I usually start with an emotional experience and then ask myself a series of questions: "What kind of experience do I want to share with my audience? What are the juxtapositions and contradictions that I'm trying to explore? How do I say what I want to say without being didactic or simplifying anything? What are the different thematic angles that need to be there in order to fully represent the emotional experience?" I start on an emotional level but I also try to keep in the back of my head, "What resources do I actually have access to? What is in my filmmaking toolbox that I know I can do for the amount of money and other limitations I know I have?"
For this film, I knew I wanted to explore the duality of love and long-term relationships and how they can be so exciting and fun but also so boring and frustrating. At the same time, I knew I had access to the NYU soundstage, and I'd built a couple of sets out of cardboard before, so I thought, Using what I have, how do I tell the story I want to tell? and just let things bounce back and forth in my head from there. Lots of writing and rewriting and testing out different elements and adapting to circumstances in order to get the best material out of my collaborators.
Dan Romer's score for Beasts of the Southern Wild is absolutely infectious—full of crescendos, handclaps, and horns. How did you land him for your film?
It was the night before my birthday and my friend who was my composer had to drop out because of previous obligations. I thought about who had done my favorite soundtracks and just said "fuck it" and emailed Dan's manager. I didn't tell him I was a student at the time. Literally 15 minutes later, Dan called me and said, "Who are you? I love your movie!" It was surreal.
I explained to him my vision for the project and he got excited and eventually agreed to do it. Dan is one of the most talented people I've ever met—he's unpretentious, kind, generous, and has become a close friend. He's one of the first people that really could have ignored me and instead chose to believe in me. For that, I'll be forever grateful. I think he saw an opportunity for a canvas that he could go crazy with. We wanted to make a score that felt like a combination of Western and Eastern European folk music with a backdrop of minimalist classical music, and we worked closely for two weeks to get it to something that we were really proud of.
What was the most difficult part of making The Life and Death of Tommy Chaos and Stacey Danger? Did you have any major fuck ups or major saves?
It was a huge process, but we took it in baby steps. Figuring out how to do the dinosaurs and models was hard because I'd never done that, but once we found the right people it all came together. Our biggest fuck-up was that we pre-built an ice trench out of Styrofoam and plaster in my backyard and were planning to bring it into the NYU studio, but when we got there the studio told us it was too messy to bring inside. Our whole set building plan was based on the idea that we would be able to bring the trench in the first day, then spend the first three studio days building the spaceship and submarine. At the end of day one we had no trench and no progress made on any of the sets.
I remember sitting in the stairwell with my production designer while 20 people were upstairs, waiting around to be told what to do. People started leaving and it really felt like everything was collapsing. But we rallied, threw away the set plans and storyboards, and redesigned a whole new trench overnight that we made out of wood, space blankets, and tarp. Once the crew saw how we were able to bounce back from certain death, I think they were inspired. After that it was smooth sailing.
As this was your senior thesis film at NYU, did your teachers ever tell you to reel it back in, that it's getting a little too epic, that your scope was insane?
I had a really supportive professor named Pete Chatmon who never censored my vision for the project and was supportive the whole way through. I think everyone in the class was like, "OK... What?" But when I presented my pitch and explained how the aesthetic wasn't supposed to be "realistic," everyone seemed to understand a bit more. People were excited too—no one else was making a laser-dinosaur movie.
I hear you're working on a feature version of this story. How's that coming along?
We are! It was a hard story to adapt since it all happens so fast, but I finally cracked the nut and figured out how to expand it into a universe that can live inside a 90-minute movie. I have another feature that's smaller that I want to make first. That'll hopefully be shooting this fall and I'm releasing my web series, EAVESDROPPING, in the next couple of weeks. I have a website with a mailing list that will keep everyone posted on my upcoming projects and also has a Behind-the-Scenes breakdown of the short that will be sent to you when you sign up!
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.