Tougher Than George Washington: Matt D’Elia is ‘American Animal’

The writer, director and star of the SXSW 2011 favorite on art house filmmaking and his next film, Powder Keg.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


When American Animal played at SXSW 2011, I thought it was either a brilliant satire of art movies or the greatest art movie ever made. Writer/director Matt D’Elia plays Jimmy Pistol, a kook living an unstructured carefree life in a lavish apartment with his friend James (Brendan Fletcher.) Jimmy likes to go naked and talk baby talk and other random eccentricities. When two girls (Mircea Monroe and Angela Sarafyan) visit for a night of random Jimmy partying, Jimmy has a breakdown when he finds out James got a job. Finally after a year, American Animal is hitting theaters on May 18. D’Ellia was in New York doing publicity so we scheduled a phone call to talk, actually for the first time voice-to-voice after e-mailing and tweeting for a year.


CraveOnline: How’s New York?

Matt D’Elia: It’s good, man. My brother is here because of the upfronts. He’s in “Whitney,” you know, so they’re doing that thing and he’s here, and my dad’s here for his TNT show and I’m here for my movie. So it’s like my whole f*ckin’ family’s here. It’s kind of awesome.


I was planning to ask if you were related to Chris D’Elia of TV’s “Whitney,” so you are?

Yeah, that’s my brother. That’s my older brother.


Is it weird to do press where everyone who interviews you has seen your pee pee?

Yeah, it’s really weird. It’s also weird that I’ve gotten used to it. Everyone who has seen the movie has seen my penis and that’s a lot of people and that’s going to be a lot more people. Especially afterwards at Q&As or interviews like this, it’s like I know you have seen my penis. So it’s a little strange but we get it out of the way. It’s good that you asked me first up front.


Are you satirizing art films or making the world’s greatest art film?

Well, in terms of intention, I was never really specifically trying to satirize the art film, the proverbial art film. But I was aware that I was making a very kind of weird, niche, specific and ballsy movie and that falls into the art film category. So if I’m doing one of those, it’s definitely trying to make the greatest of all time, because if you’re not trying to make the greatest of all time at whatever you’re doing, then what the f*ck are you doing? I really wanted to go against the grain as much as I could and I think in that way, it’s not exactly satirizing but it is taking that and turning it on its head. So that is something I was trying to do.


It would be classified as an art film because you’re playing with format and narrative. So is it a matter of taking that to a higher degree?

I prefer, in terms of the big art film movement particularly in terms of American independent filmmaking, my favorites are the late ‘60s/’70s huge boom in that movement in America. So I took a lot of my influence from that and just tried to do something very modern and very generational and of our times to stand on the shoulders of giants and just do what they did but try to take it the next step further that they trail blazed already.


There’s a whole genre of indie movies especially where young people sit around talking about their feelings. Were you commenting on that?

Absolutely. On paper, American Animal can seem like it’s like those movies. Formally, specifically in terms of the form, my cinematographer and producing partner Julian King and I from the very beginning, it was of utmost importance to make it as little like those movies as possible. I think people call them Mumbelcore, right?


That’s the latest version. It goes back to Slacker and Clerks and that era.

And the further back you go the more in line I feel with them. Slacker and Clerks are more my bag than the modern Mumblecore thing. So I really, really, really wanted to separate myself from that Mumblecore movement stylistically and formally because I think Mumblecore kind of throws form out the window and makes its low-fi thing its form. If you’re making a movie and you’re throwing form and visuals out the window, then you’re losing 90% of the battle because it’s motion picture, and it’s pictures. You have to make them look a specific way. We were very specific about our visual scheme. We wanted to do the opposite of what Mumblecore does.


Are movies today too hung up on traditional story?

Traditional storytelling is great. I love those kinds of movies and I love them when they’re good. I do think though that people are a little too concerned with likeable characters and not concerned with being challenged or being engaged. Obviously it wasn’t of utmost importance for me to make Jimmy likeable, but just because I don’t like a character doesn’t mean I don’t want to watch him or her or that I don’t care about his plight. So I think there’s a place for everything. When I think about my interests, I love all kinds of movies. Spielberg’s one of my favorite directors but so is Abel Ferrara. It’s across the board but I think there’s a place for all that stuff.


I guess I feel burnout on some traditional plots that stick so strictly to a format they miss the point. You hear about comedies cutting jokes to move the plot along, and the plot could just be someone needs to make a certain amount of money. I wonder if traditional stories sometimes miss the point of storytelling.

I think in general what can happen there is that the specificity of a voice of a filmmaker can get more and more removed within that world. I think that specificity is probably the most important thing because the opposite is obviously generic. When things get generic, it ends up like everything else. Bigger movies want to get as many people to go as they possibly can so they make it as broad as possible. I just think when a big movie or a small movie is very specific and knows exactly what it’s trying to do and goes for it, those are the best kinds of movies. That’s totally what I was trying to do.


As far as unlikeable characters, wasn’t The Social Network refreshing?

Exactly. I love that film and I love David Fincher. I was a little disappointed after the fact that more bigger movies didn’t take a page from that and say, “Oh look, that can be very successful and win a lot of awards and make a lot of money. We can make it about a f***ing d***head.” That didn’t really happen but that movie’s great and it exists so that makes me happy. It used to be a lot more common to make a movie about a bastard. You look at Charles Foster Kane, he’s a f***in’ d***head but it’s considered the greatest film of all time. It’s just a little bit less palatable I guess to modern audiences which I think is unfortunate.


Is there also a trap screenwriters and filmmakers can fall into, that they make an unlikeable character but they forget to give you a reason to want to watch them?

Yeah, it’s important to think about empathy. Why an audience would care is important but likeability is just never a concern for me. If you’re going too hard one way and trying to make people hate a character, that’s shock for shock’s sake and nobody wants to see that.


Does there need to be a reason that these characters live in this little world, which we find out later, or couldn’t it just be they created this weird little word?

It could be either way. It kind of comes back to the empathy thing. I think it’s important to address the illness but not say what the illness is because it provides a clear reason without having to explain anything. It was also a writer’s tool. How do you put this audience into this world and set up this main character’s crazy worldview without really having to explain why? If he’s terminally ill, that is an instant hook. I started writing it and it was exactly what you’re saying. There wasn’t that specific reason. I think I got about halfway through and I felt this isn’t working for me, it’s not what I wanted to write. Once the illness clicked, everything clicked.


I was sold from the beginning. I wanted to live in that world for 90 minutes and I didn’t care why.

I think that’s kind of how I approach movies too. I heard Tarantino say watching movies ideally is like hanging out with a bunch of people you want to hang out with. I think there’s an element of that with American Animal too. It should be fun. Whether you like Jimmy or not, you should like to watch him. I look at somebody like Jimmy and I think I don’t want to live with that guy but I want to spend a night with him. I want to spend a night over at his place in his world and just see whatever the f*** crazy sh** happens.


My version of that is “Because it’s awesome.” Whenever someone asks what’s the motivation or why a character did that, I say, “Because it was awesome.”

[Laughs] That is result oriented but I’m with you there. If something’s awesome then why question it.


Was the ‘90s indie movement part of your film education?

Huge, huge. When I was little, my father is a cinephile as well and he schooled me on the ‘60s and ‘70s. Then when I was an early teenager, that big ‘90s boom with Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, and Fincher too. Those were guys I wanted to be. It was instant. They’re the reason I wrote my first script when I was 13. It sucked but I id it because they were so f***ing inspiring to me. I don’t really see a strong voice movement like that now and I think it’s time for that. We had it in the ‘70s, we had it in the ‘90s and now it’s 2012 and I’m kind of missing that. I would love for that kind of thing to happen right now.


What was the script you wrote when you were 13 about?

Oh gosh, another big ‘90s movie that I f*cking was gaga over was Swingers. Honestly, I was 13, it was f*ckin’ Swingers but not good. It was guys hanging out trying to f*ck girls and they’re talking. One of them’s like Jon Favreau’s character and one of them’s a fast talking guy like Vince Vaughn. When I was that age, I didn’t know anything about how to do anything. I was just looking at what I liked and I wanted to write that.


You also probably hadn’t dated anyone or had a relationship yet.

I hadn’t at all. I was such a late bloomer sexually and I hadn’t kissed a girl when I was 12 and all my friends had. I remember f***ing crying to my dad and I was like, “Why haven’t I kissed a girl like everybody else has?” And he was like, “Don’t worry. I promise you one day you will kiss a girl.” And he was right. I have kissed a girl, at least one girl by this time.


What ultimately prompted you to write and make American Animal?

Well, I had been writing, kind of kicking around Hollywood as a writer, odd jobs here and there. I really wanted to make a feature as a director. At the same time actually I got really sick and that took two years out of my life and I wasn’t even writing. I was just f***ing in bed for real, like just in bed really sick. So that’s kind of where the crazy character of Jimmy came to me while I was sick. Then as I got better I had this crazy script and it was like I want to make a movie still. I wanted to make a movie more than ever. I was 24 and I needed to make a movie. So I decided okay, I’m making this and we made it.


Are you fully recovered now?

Yeah, I’m all better now. I had three surgeries in six months. One of them was actually what killed George Washington. I survived what killed George Washington.


What was the condition you had?

It started out really simple. It was actually chronic sinusitis that didn’t go away. I basically always had 100 fever and I always felt like I had the flu. So I had sinus surgery, but after the sinus surgery, the infection moved to my tonsils and was closing off my throat. It created this tonsillary abscess. That’s what killed George Washington. They cut that out of my throat on the spot, like blood spurting all over my face in the office. Then I had to get my tonsils out like a month later. It was those three surgeries and I lost so much weight and I wasn’t healing. It was one complication after another after another after another and then the next thing I knew it was two years later. It’s a really common procedure. It’s usually really easy. Mine just got really complicated and that’s why I got f*cked up.


Were you making a living as a writer, even uncredited, before?

Define making a living.


Could you support yourself?

I was making a living not only by doing that. I would produce tiny little spec pilots and I would PA. I would write little things and get paid a little bit here and there, but it was just anything I could do to make ends meet.


One of Jimmy’s big issues is that his friend is getting a job. Is working a day job to be condemned?

No, definitely not. Not by me at least. If someone thinks so then that’s their bag and that’s fine. Obviously Jimmy does but Jimmy thinks that out of necessity. He can’t leave his home. So how does he justify his life and his existence? I think the way he does that, he forms this world where that’s the only choice. The only choice is to rail against that because the world is gone if Jimmy isn’t there. If James isn’t there, if these girls aren’t there, there’s no audience there for Jimmy, there’s nobody to perform for and he has nothing. I don’t think getting a day job should be condemned. What I was interested in was the ideas clanging around in my head while I was sick about not being able to be out in the world, was that okay, was that not okay? I think that basic conflict was where the Jimmy/James construct came from.


Are you writing something new?

It looks like late this summer, my next script is called Powder Keg. It’s a post-heist film. I’m so excited to make a movie that I can easily explain. It’s a post-heist film, like a crime genre thing. I guess if I had to put it in a hole, I’d say it’s like Reservoir Dogs if it was written by David Mamet. It’s very much like American Animal but if you stuffed it into a genre. It’s one location and there’s guns, all that fun crazy sh** we like about movies.


Do you have a unique Matt D’Elia take, as a film lover yourself, on the heist gone wrong genre?


I just love the genre and there are so many genres out there that I’m interested in. I don’t want to make weird crazy art films that are hard to explain in one sentence for the rest of my life. I want to make them but I want to make crime dramas, I want to make war films, I want to make gangster films, I want to make f***in’ love stories, and make westerns. I think I was sitting down around SXSW and American Animal, after that I was thinking, “What do I want to do next?” I had all these ideas and Powder Keg with the way I was feeling at the moment after American Animal it seemed like the right follow-up and it just made a lot of sense. I do have a really specific unique take on it and it’s going to be f***in’ so awesome. It’s the movie I want to see.


Did getting distribution for American Animal help you secure financing for Powder Keg?

American Animal is the reason and probably the only reason anybody will ever meet with me. It’s tough because you come out to L.A. as a young person and you want to make a movie. You look at everybody and everybody’s either made no movies or they’ve made two movies. Nobody’s made one movie. It’s a catch-22. How the f*ck do you make that one movie? It’s impossible to make one movie but after you make one movie, you can get a second movie, so I saw that trend and I thought, “How the f*** do I make one movie? I’ve got to make one.” It turned out how I wanted it to and I think the reaction has been, I don’t want to say surprisingly positive, but surprisingly not as divisive as I thought it would be. People like it and now instead of people not picking up my phone calls, they finally are picking up my phone calls. Getting American Animal to SXSW was a big deal and the distribution’s f***ing huge and the critical response has been huge. I think that’s made people comfortable with saying, “Hey, this guy can make a movie. Let’s see what he wants to do for his next one.”