Andrew Neel has directed documentaries about people with double lives, those who turn the cameras on themselves, those who role play. Now, in his first feature film, King Kelly, he returns to those themes using camera the iPhone as his camera almost exclusively. A product of Neel’s fixation on the swift advent and influence of the YouTube generation, King Kelly is about a very precocious girl with a slick mouth and large online, voyeuristic following. Here, the Vermont native talks about his interest in the self-interested, porn, and the creative influence of Eric Cartman.
What came first: the idea to make a YouTube-style movie, or the storyline of one crazy night of America?
I think the idea to make a bunch of YouTube movies strapped together into a movie was the first inclination. There’s a user-generated film called Memorial Day 2000 which you can find on the web. It’s about 20 minutes and that was part of the inspiration for the film, which is also about one crazy night in America. I would say the driving principle was the YouTube phenomenon, the YouTube generation, and the self-obsession of user generated media and internet modalities.
The resolution was pretty clear for just using camera phones. What specific phones did you use?
We had the iPhone. I would say were were rolling on it 90% of the time, and 80% of the footage that is in the movie is iPhone footage. The other camera that we were using was actually a cheaper camera called a canonELPH.
What was filming like? Was there a cameraman or was it exactly as it looked, with the actors handling the cameras?
The director of photography was Ethan Palmer, and in the beginning, before we even shot, we did a tutorial with the actors about how to operate the camera. Then, on each specific take we’d first do a camera rehearsal. Obviously, it was different from a normal film because often the talent was holding the camera. In the beginning, Ethan was actually shooting a lot more of it himself, so he’d hold the camera and Louisa or Libby would stand next to him, as if they were holding the camera. As we got into it, we found that letting them use the phone, if we kind of guided them on the shot, was actually more interesting and lent more realistic, credible feeling to the whole film.
Did you find shooting on cell phones to be challenging?
Yeah, actually. If you want to be sloppy, you’ve got to be very planned about how you want to be sloppy. So it obviously produces a bunch of atypical challenges in terms of the filmmaking process that me and Ethan had to overcome. On the other hand, for the talent, I think they don’t have a huge apparatus in their face. The camera is part of the scene. I think there’s something very liberating about that. The suspension of disbelief might be broken down to some extent for the actors, because they’re filming it live. So it kind of blurred the lines a bit in that regard.
The opening credit sequence with the peepshow website-theme was very intricate. Who created that?
Alice Goldfarb, our interactive web scene designer. We had recorded an online session on myfreecams.com which was very similar to that online performance, and we then recreated it to some extent. As bawdy as it is, I think it’s really funny. The audience by and large, I get a lot of laughter, because there’s a lot of punctuation that happens, this kind of spontaneous punctuation that happens on the internet when you have live chats and video.
I played the movie for a second at work and I almost had a heart attack because it got so graphic so quickly.
No. You can’t do that. [Laughs] A guy wrote about it for Wall Street Journal before the South By Southwest Festival. He said, “I opened it up at the office and everyone was like, ‘Oh my god! You’re looking at porn. ‘” The thing is, in our culture the majority of the traffic on the internet is porn. There’s some insane statistic, something like 50% of traffic on the internet is porn. I mean, that’s what people are doing on the internet. There are lots of young women that are doing this in many different iterations. It’s not like I was creating something that doesn’t exist there that is going on. I think it’s not only anthropologically fascinating; I think it’s kind of funny and kind of scary.
Louisa Krouse did a great job as Kelly. Were you worried at all that the graphic nature of the part would turn away a lot of serious actresses?
Yeah, of course. You know, if this were France, no one would have thought this was a big deal. Here in America, where our roots are puritanical, that kind of thing definitely scares off a lot of really talented people. To her credit, Louisa saw why I wanted to use that kind of graphic stuff in my movie, and just really gave her all to it. I think it’s a ferocious performance. The funny thing is there is actually nothing below the belt. There’re a lot of movies that are not considered gratuitous that show a lot more, but it’s the way that it’s shown. It’s the way the sex is presented. Here, it’s not idealized. It feels like a user-generated movie. I think that’s what freaks people out, and for the right reasons. I’m glad it freaks people out. It should.
What kind of direction did you give Louisa for getting her character down?
We talked a lot about Eric Cartman from South Park, and if you watch it you’ll see a little bit of Cartman in there, or a lot of Cartman in there.
I mean, she is infinitely selfish and willing to manipulate the truth for her own ends. Beyond Eric Cartman, she’s narcissistic. I think also, essentially, she exists as a critique of the worst part of American values. The most excessively self-centered part of the American mind is in King Kelly. I think Mike and I really created her to be this kind of American monster.
Were you aiming for a specific message with this movie?
No. I don’t like to present a thesis. I think people can take away different conclusions. Certainly, what I wanted to discuss was a narcissistic culture that is becoming so self-consumed that we may not be able to understand who we are at a certain point. I think the iPhone is the new pool of narcissists. We’re looking into it, and we’re all part of it. So obviously this character is a hyperbolic version of young American girl who’s self-obsessed, but that’s what I wanted people to think about. It’s certainly a social critique, no doubt about it. In terms of what I think people must come away with in terms of conclusion, I hope they’re varied and I hope that people fight about it. I hope that some people love it and some people hate it. Controversy is what continues the dialogue, so I hope it creates a dialogue.
What do you think about Disney buying Lucasfilm and getting the seventh Star Wars movie in motion?
I feel pretty bad about it. It’s a real bummer. This is evidence of American narcissism. We objectify ourselves. It’s like these reality TV shows where we watch ourselves doing the jobs we do everyday. I mean, this is insane. We sit around watching ourselves do everything. You’d think we’d have enough of it, but we don’t. So the perversion of Star Wars and the nth sequel of every single movie is the perfect example of our narcissism. Or maybe were just out of ideas? I’m not though. I’m not out of ideas.
What projects do you have coming up?
I’m working on a film called The House of Trammel, about a very wealthy patrician family that loses all their money in the 2008 crash, and they go up to their family estate to divvy up the tidbits and things go horribly, horribly, horribly wrong. I have two other other scripts in development that share an interest in the internet and identity in the modern age: one is called Salvation Go Janet which is about an evangelical woman who has a sinful online life and she gets found out. Then I’ve got a play that hopefully will go later this winter. It’s sort of Waiting For Godot in a predator drone cockpit. A lot of it has to do with the real and the virtual and the blurring of those lines.