It’s very of-the-moment to make a movie that unfolds entirely over the internet, but LA-based filmmaker Eugene Kotlyarenko has stretched that device to its extreme. Skydiver is a 91-minute feature composed of eleven chapters that Kotlyarenko initially released over a two-week span on jstchillin.org, under the name Instructional Video #4: Preparation for Mission. The movie, which was made amidst the wreckage of a failed relationship, uses video chat, browsers, and iOS for its mise-en-scene, and follows a heartbroken man (Kotlyarenko, playing himself) as he treads along an increasingly darker path. Kotlyarenko sums it up best: “It is interested in love, friendship, performance, death, truth, terrorism, music, computers, desperation, belief, paranoia, vanity, and the way we interact now.” For his actors, Kotlyarenko turned to friends, family, and lovers, only he didn’t tell them their conversations were being used for a movie. The result makes for a startlingly naturalistic depiction of human relationships, 21st century style.
The best part: Kotlyarenko will be screening Skydiver tomorrow, October 5, at the Suzanne Geiss Co. in Manhattan, as part of their Digital Expressionism series (5pm, don’t be late!). We interviewed Kotlyarenko–over email, of course–about the making of one of the most unusual films you’re likely to see all year.
First of all, break your movie down for us. What are we watching?
Skydiver is a movie made up entirely of webcam conversations, taking place at a particularly emotional and conflict-ridden time in my life. It tracks my character from being a general lusty male, to a head-over-heels-in-love male, to a despondent and rejected male, to a budding domestic terrorist male.
What were the feelings that you were experiencing in your life that motivated/pushed you to want to make this film?
Depression from a violent break-up, alienation from too much time in front of the computer screen, frustration over how complicated my other feature film, 0s & 1s, was becoming and a desire to create something simple, pure, costing no money and sourced entirely from my instincts, emotions and personal relationships.
Was making the movie therapeutic for you? And if so, did it work?
Making it was a healthy change of pace because it was exciting to be active on a single “mission” 24-hours a day, whether that meant active chatting, active internet-casting, active terrorist role-playing or active editing with a quickly approaching deadline, it all felt good in the face of a minor paralysis created by a marathon visual effects process and the doldrums of the break-up. When the whole process was over, I’m sure I returned to square one. I don’t believe in therapy and I don’t believe people can fundamentally change themselves.
When you first started conceiving Skydiver, was there a “Eureka” moment when the entire thing came together?
In Spring 2010 I had this brief, but potent long-distance relationship, which took me to great emotional heights and then brought me crashing down after its abrupt conclusion (i was fucking dumped). A few months later, the deadline for this movie to begin live broadcasting was rapidly approaching. I had already decided it was going to be about my transformation into a “nonchalant terrorist.” I intuitively had this point B established, but didn’t quite understand where I was coming from to arrive at my terrorist identity.
Literally hours before I began editing the first part of the movie, I got a call from that ex-girlfriend, after weeks of radio silence. I wanted to talk to her so badly, but I realized it would be best left for the cameras. I told her we would have to postpone this conversation for 9 days and when we resumed it, it’d have to be through a webcam. Strangely, she agreed. Maybe I had some leverage for my over-the-top request, because she felt guilty about her own extreme behavior. IDK. Anyway, after she hung up, I finally understood why my character would turn to terrorism. Her dumping me would be the perfect emo catalyst for my behavior. That more or less drove the rest of the movie.
How does a movie that’s set entirely online look like on the page? Was there a traditional script?
I’m an all or nothing sort of guy. When I do scripted, it rarely deviates from the page. In this case, I had very little explicit idea about where I was going, especially at the onset. On the other hand, I had a strong sense for what might be interesting talking points, little observations that were on my mind, confessional moments that I’d wanted to tell the camera for ages. Plus I knew my friends well enough to know how to push their buttons, as myself and also a caricatured version of myself.
There were probably around 4 hours of chatting, 2 hours of searching for chat-opportunities and then another 8-12 hours turning that plethora of material into 6-10 enjoyable minutes. This was an everyday process for two very exhilarating and sleepless weeks.
You’ve collaborated with a lot of fellow artists on this. How did you pitch the idea to them, and how collaborative of a process was it?
There was no pitch, there was no foreknowledge of what was going on, especially in everyone’s first encounters. Eventually, I told Morgan Krantz, an actor in several other films of mine, and Max Martin, my upstairs neighbor at the time, about roles that I would loosely like them to fulfill in this scenario. At the tail end, Larry Levine, an actor-director also joined in as the mysterious cleric. Choosing him was the only act you might conventionally call “casting,” and I was really happy about that. Everyone else was completely unaware of what I was up to.
When they did find out they were being used in a film, how did they react?
Most of them didn’t find out until it aired. I think everyone was fine with it. I’m only friends with people that I love, respect and admire. I try to avoid interacting with people that suck, because I am super judgmental and am bad at hiding that. I love my close friends and they more or less love me. More importantly, they trust me.
It’s difficult to tell what is real here and what isn’t. Soooo…. what is real here and what isn’t?
Everything is real, including me dying at the end. That’s why it’s a good movie.
How did the terrorism aspect find its way into your plot?
This is Winter 2010. I had been feeling pretty lonely in LA, two years in, still with few people I considered “friends” and was frequently video chatting with my beloved lil buddies scattered all over the globe, to maintain a sense that I was functional person whose life was worthwhile (lol).
One sunday morning, I streamed The Baader Meinhoff Complex on Netflix. As the movie progressed it became less about the group’s radical political ideology and more about the interpersonal conflicts of the members. I saw it and thought how comical it would be to transpose these committed philosophical attitudes onto some privileged, white, post-Ivy, youth lazing around in bed, video chatting with some friends on the opposite coast (maybe a beautiful young couple, also lazing in bed) about Pitchfork-approved bands, organic groceries, artistic quandaries and then sort of casually slip into discussion about robbing a bank or blowing up a government building…with no major shift in tone. Gentrifiers as terrorists. Liberal Artists as Waco 2.0. Millennial Anarchits full of hot air with blasse-easy access to guns and drugs and whatever. This concept actually predates every other idea that’s in the movie. It also predates the Boston Marathon Bombers, whose backstory horrifically resemble my own.
Clearly the internet is a source of inspiration for you, but in turn is it also a form of procrastination?
The Internet and interconnectivity are a form of procrastination for everybody and anybody who uses a computer or a phone. I used to think that sort of procrastination was a scourge, and to a certain extent I still do. On the other hand, it might actually be a welcome break from highly concentrated online work rituals. Just the way that doing nothing was once considered to be a welcome rest for the brain. I’m sure our brains are going to quickly become rewired to the point where scrolling down a feed (tumblr, instagram, some future feed we don’t yet know) is as mindless as doing nothing once was.
Comically enough, the movie was made for this online exhibition space called “jstchilin.org” whose idealogical tenet was to mine the space of “online procrastination” that is “chillin” as opposed to the active form, “surfin,” and explore artistic formulations that arose through that mode. At least that’s my interpretation of what it was about.
As a filmmaker, what is your favorite subject to explore?
All the ways in which life is a huge cosmic joke, now and forever.
Do you have any commercial aspirations?
Okay, let me rephrase that. Do you aspire to direct mainstream films, and if so, how do you envision them?
Yes, I would like to make some movies that get high visibility in the mainstream. I do think that every movie you finish and release must be a radical step forward or what’s the point, but I don’t think I am consciously changing the way I look at the world or try to aestheticize it. I have written several thrillers in different stages of development right now and I think they are a lot of fun. I’ve spent the last few months making mini-movie music videos and that has been a blast. People are largely told what is “mainstream” by corporations, advertising or the sheer will of singular creative voices. It takes a force of nature to put something together that can be entertaining and offer a new way of looking at the world. I obviously haven’t accomplished that yet, but I know that’s what I’m striving for. For the last 10 years, I’ve known that we are living in a particularly unique transitional moment between analog lives and full digital-integration deep inside our minds and bodies. That undoubtedly changes the way that we look at things and the way that we understand stories. I have tried to incorporate those technological changes into my formal strategies, my stylistic decisions and the tales that I’m telling. I’m not delusion, so I do understand that a more participatory storytelling medium like a video game or an active screen like a Smartphone are more superficially relevant screens in today’s attention-economy. But I also still believe in the transcendent and immersive power of movies, above all other forms, to show people a new way of understanding their own deep, dark, and comical life experience. Movies just hit harder and last longer down in the subconscious. They are the apex of the audio-visual medium. So I’m just trying to make some entertaining versions of that.
And finally, have you gotten over the breakup?
Probably. There are always breakups to be upset about. Recent ones, old ones, future ones. Who knows? Whenever you’re in love and then that love comes to end, every single instance of that is going to be eternally sad. But for a freak like me, who has a truly naive – maybe even monstrous – idea that love is the sort of thing that starts off being really incredible and should never stop being really incredible, emotional breakups are a curse par-the-course, I guess until you find TRUE LOVE. It sounds pretty shitty, and often times it is, but at the end of the day I really believe the important thing is to love.