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For the Audience's Consideration: An Interview with Ted Fendt

A conversation with the indie filmmaker whose shorts have played at MUBI, about his feature debut.
A friend and a contributor to the Notebook has taken a deep breath of air and expanded his droll short films—which we’ve featured on MUBI—into a modest feature that received a decidedly impressive premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February and will next show at the New Directors/New Films collaboration between New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art.
Short Stay does not feel like a bigger film than director Ted Fendt's charmingly ill-fitting shorts, but rather is more robust, fuller in passing detail and commonplace incident. In other words: unassuming, but charged. This new movie very much resembles Fendt’s wonderful shorts, which feature young people of unenunciated dissatisfaction and nearly inscrutable psychology living small scale lives full of long-time acquaintances, a few friendships, over-visited family homes, and well-trod suburban and small town strolls. Fendt is also a distinctly regional filmmaker; though based in New York, where he is a projectionist and translator, the director chooses to film in and around his home town in south New Jersey and across the state border in Philadelphia, lending his films wonderful, sidelong revelations of areas of the United States rarely seen in contemporary pictures.  All of these pleasures are also to be found in his new 60-minute feature, which admirably retains the humane scale and scope of the director’s shorts, with a story built through clever concision, compassionate observation, deadpan humor, and small town anecdote, threaded ever-so-finely with subtle navigation of morals (à la Eric Rohmer) and opportunity (à la Hong Sang-soo).
Short Stay is a feature film but it feels like a short story. Like contemporaneous Canadian filmmaker Kazik Radwanski’s How Heavy This Hammer, which was also shown in Berlinale’s Forum, Short Stay sticks with tricky allegiance to what could be described as an acharismatic hero. Or, at least, one about whom the film discreetly avoids explanation, exposition, or talkativeness, and thus challenges the audience to understand a person whose decisions in life and in the story are sometimes confounding in their passivity. It’s not that wayward, underemployed South New Jerseyite Mike (played by Fendt’s regular actor Mike MacCherone, part of a cast of non-professionals and friends) is a confusing person, but rather that his introversion and unique style of active-passiveness will never be fully explained: he’ll tag along with acquaintances, attend parties, but never cross an unnamed threshold of involvement with those around him. We see him in New Jersey, we watch his sudden decision to sublet a friend’s flat in nearby Philadelphia and substitute at that friend’s tips-only job as a city tour guide—and are left to our own thoughts about Mike’s temporary takeover of this man's life, about Mike's uncomplaining, lumbering pace, his stoic subsistence without a girl, without good friends, without real pay or a real home. The film seeks not explanation but observation. Mike's perseverance, come what may, and characteristic combination of being at once completely at ease with the world and entirely awkward in it, is strangely beguiling in its carefully tracked, pedestrian oddity.
Short Stay leavens what could be a story of a dour person with an off-guard sense of humor and preference for brief scenes cut like the setup and delivery of jokes. The jokes aren't always there (which is also a joke), but this technique most especially primes us to take even the most everyday conversation or meeting not just as something peculiarly amusing, but also as peculiarly pointed. The sense—rhythmic, warmly sympathetic but hands-off—is that each scene and even each shot, including the many simply of Mike walking down a sidewalk or walking across a street, holds in it some crux, a crucial moment or encounter, even if not properly seen or yet understood. This is where I am called to mind both the movies of Hong Sang-soo, whose sublime lo-fi approach to local incident Fendt channels in a particularly American way; and Rohmer, who is conjured in the filmmaker’s allegiance to straight-forward technique, and the emotional tone of shooting on 16mm film in the specific milieu his characters. But in ease and casual observation, in wry construction and small detail, in humor and in building a film from familiarity and friendship into something of patient insight, Short Stay stands by itself.
Ted and I chatted over tea and cakes at a decadently dim cafe in Berlin about his feature debut on the eve of Short Stay's world premiere at the festival.

NOTEBOOK: I know you're quite a cinephile, but I was surprised to learn that Short Stay only has only a few specific references to other films.
TED FENDT: I was trying to remove as much creativity, or artistic decisions, so to speak, when we were deciding things like where the camera should be placed. There's this shot from [Jacques] Rivette's Gang of Four, which is the opening shot, in which, just because of its innocuous quality and very direct, non-flashy style, gave me some kind of courage to open the film with a shot that just throws you into the film, into contact with this character, and doesn't really give you any kind of orientation to know immediately how to interface with him. Nor do, I think, most of the other shots in the film.
NOTEBOOK: That doesn't sound like a reference to a film, but rather like you looked to Gang of Four and its opening as a kind of toolkit, a suggested route or a possible technique of opening a film. Not a reference in terms of meaning but rather that Rivette's film presents a solution to introducing a certain kind of drama.
FENDT: Yeah. And I don't really like, or particularly get, certain self-conscious references to shots from other films. Or what the point of an homage would be, anyway. It was mainly just having somewhere in the back of my mind what kind of shot I would open this film with, and seeing that and thinking, "oh, one can start a movie with something that's running right off the bat," with no build up to it. The movie could have been running already and you just walked in to the middle of it.
NOTEBOOK: It's funny you're attracted to this moment in Rivette's film that you describe as innocuous, because that's how I think of your movies, or your style choices in general: as so easy-going that one doesn't necessarily notice the form. I'm surprised that you were looking for a way to do this, because I would have said, based on your short films, that you seem to be doing this already.
FENDT: But it's good to know that someone else is also sort of doing this, and it's a path that's not the wrong path. In general, I had set some rules in the beginning to guide us in how to shoot scenes, because of some shots in my short films which I didn't like, retrospectively, that I think were just lazy shots that came from using a zoom lens on those films. In this, we decided to only us one prime lens to shoot the whole thing: a 25 mm, a very normal lens. I also wanted to shoot the scenes from one camera position only, to have one perspective. This developed into us shooting each scene as one sequence-shot. This created a lot of situations, not so much in exteriors, because there was more space, but in the cramped interiors often there was only a few places you could put the camera, and then maybe from those few places you could only put it in a few places to coherently stage things. I liked this—because I don't want to try to communicate anything through camera movement. I didn't want to give a visceral sense through a camera movement. I just want the camera to be this—obviously not an impassive observer—but an observer of events that are presented for the audience's consideration.
NOTEBOOK: Did you find yourself enjoying creatively, as well as just practically, this constraint?
FENDT: Yes, because there's a number of surprising things that come out of this. Like scenes we didn't shoot in order sequentially, but happen sequentially in the film, that ended up being shot from the same or nearly the same camera position. They're not quite from the same camera position, but they're more or less from the same camera position, but it doesn't feel gimmicky to me, because it was just that we had to shoot these three or four scenes in this location from the same camera position on different days and we were limited. So you get some interesting cuts where the composition is more or less the same. For example, the scene where Mike is sleeping on the floor for the first time, and it's like he's upside down in the frame, and that's because the only way I could shoot all the stuff that's happening in that scene was to put the camera there. I don't know that I would have necessarily thought to have that weird, surprising composition otherwise.
NOTEBOOK: I'm surprised to hear you talk about the film so practically and technically. I know you shot Short Stay on 16mm film and you've talked before to me about the importance of how the colors come out on the film, and your experience working with the lab on your negative. But when I watch your films the technical is so unapparent to me, the style is so self-effacing.
FENDT: I'm more interested in having a method than having a style. Rather than a form that in and of itself is empty and just being applied to different kinds of content—this I'm not so interested in. A method is maybe going to be apparent in the film at a certain point, but I think it will produce something that doesn't seem so one-note. Not that there aren't interesting stylists in cinema, obviously. For example, one thing I was thinking of while watching the documentary I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman, when they're interviewing Gus Van Sant he's basically talking about how he took her style and applied it in Last Days. Chantal Akerman's style comes so much out of her personality and her personal development as a filmmaker that to then just take that as something that could be applied to anything else...that doesn't work for me. The woman who made Goshogaoka, Sharon Lockhart, her films all deal with duration, but the types of shots she's using differ depending on the subject matter of the films. She got all those ten minute takes because those exercises that are being performed in the film are all about that length of time. Another film is an hour long shot because that comes out of the content.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think that if you were shooting your films elsewhere and not in this milieu of South New Jersey twenty-somethings...
FENDT: I don't know. I think I would probably be interested in the same method. It's a method that, for this, is just location sound and a camera that's not telegraphing anything to the audience about how they should be emotionally reacting to a scene, or how the characters are feeling at a given moment. And the acting is like that too—they're not actors who are interpreting characters in the script I'm giving them, and then scene-by-scene telling the audience through gesture and intonation, and so forth, how the audience should feel vis-à-vis the character. Because I don't want that, and they, as non-professional actors, don't have the training to deal with that. I think those two things are things I'd be interested in regardless of the situation. That comes out of lots of diverse things, but in particularly '30s cinema, and also a lot of silent films, comedies but also dramas. When I look at certain shots, a lot of the time I just wonder what it would be like if this shot had direct sound. And that kind of purity of certain street shots in silent cinema and early sound cinema where they suddenly are applying sound and there's all this roughness to it. There wasn't the kind of technology that exists for post-production to finesse and smooth out so-called 'flaws' in the sound recording. That kind of directness is something I appreciate.
NOTEBOOK: When you're writing these characters, are you thinking about them as such, or are you thinking of them as the actors you will cast?
FENDT: I'm thinking of them as characters. It's different depending on the person, but the main character, Mike, I'm basically thinking of the subject, a theme—which in one sense is suggested by my own experience but was also in a sense suggested by his experience—and a particular aspect of his character and his personality, which I was interested in honing in on and magnifying, utilizing that to create a character.
NOTEBOOK: What aspect was that?
FENDT: It's the aspect of him that I see when I'm speaking with him in certain situations: a kind of ease he has in social situations that I would feel uncomfortable in because I would need like a goal or some reason to be at a social function, a bar, a party or something, and if I didn't have that I would not be comfortable. Where he seems to be able to just sort of sit there without any need to have any kind of ulterior motive. It's a comfort that I do not understand. I'm fascinated by it. It's so opposite my own personality. I wanted to do something with this character who, if he was invited to a party—"sure why not?"—just goes without issue, can hang out and be there and doesn't have to be engaging with other people and is comfortable...but what if you took that and put that in different situations so that you had a character who was never saying "no"? He only says "no" to two things, I think, in the movie. There's only one or two times when you see chinks in this armor of constantly saying "yes," just going along with whatever.
NOTEBOOK: One of the magnificent but troubling things about that character is that this ease he has of going along with things, this supreme flexibility, even going from South Jersey to South Philly for no real reason, showing up at party and being totally fine with being by himself, talking to nobody—this is an amazing quality to have. But it also seems like for the same reason Mike's able to do that, he's not able to actualize any of those situations. He can say "yes" and move into it, but once he's there he can't do something to take the next step of agency and engage.
FENDT: Yeah. I did not know while I was filming and it's still something to discover for myself as an editor and viewer–if I can ever watch the film with that kind of distance—if that's something to be critical of or how one should consider that. I couldn't pass judgment while exploring that.
NOTEBOOK: You mentioned before to me that you see this film as building this character through accumulation of such scenes.
FENDT: I think that if there are characters in the movie and not merely the presence of people in different situations then it come out of a kind of behavioral composite, an accumulation of detail about how they act from one scene to the next throughout the course of the film, sometimes without motivation, or the motivations are inaccessible. There can be vast behavioral changes from one scene to the next.
NOTEBOOK: How did you structure this revelation of character?
FENDT: The first scene I wrote was the scene where Mark comes back and basically has to kick Mike out the apartment, Mike says he won't leave and there's this face off. I was thinking of a particular aspect of Mark's personality that if blown up large and scrutinized could make him into a villainous character. What if that thing that Mike is doing and that thing that Mark is doing came head-to-head? After that I started writing where things would go and I thought maybe he'd head to another apartment and I had a friend, Marta, who I was originally going to cast in my last short film. She wasn't available then but I always wanted to do something with her. And she has the kind of personality that would just welcome a guy in and wouldn't even ask anything like how long is he even staying, and so forth. Then I thought, well, "people that I know in Philadelphia have roommates," so I asked Marta if she had a roommate and she did, so I met her roommate Meg and wrote her in. We would usually rehearse scenes before shooting just to a point where they got comfortable saying lines, my words in their mouths, because usually at first it just sounds stilted because they're trying to add some acting to it, and we just need to rehearse until they realize they don't need to add that and are comfortable saying things in a kind of natural way. Not natural in the sense of the film trope of 'naturalism,' but just natural in the sense that they could say the line without needing to add an intonation to telegraph something that isn't developed as information that that character might be feeling.
NOTEBOOK: That being said, I do feel like there is a style of dialog delivery across the characters.
FENDT: It might be more of just trying to get them to say things in a way. We don't talk about psychology ever, we just talk about intonations. I'll ask them to maybe not put a certain intonation on a word. Some people I'm a bit more direct with, others I give more freedom. It's a range of performances, I think, from more Bressonian, maybe, with Mike, to the villains of Mark and Dan, to Meg and Marta who have a kind of Rohmerian naturalistic quality. I want their personalities to shine through without them trying to add something.
NOTEBOOK: I didn't mean to say that everyone speaks in the same voice, but rather that there is a certain kind of flattened affect to speech that, for me at least, makes me feel like nearly every scene is comedic—or building to comedy. 
FENDT: I'm really happy with that. Things that are often funny to me are things that are out of the ordinary or unexpected.
NOTEBOOK: It's hard to describe, actually. I find your films very funny but I don't think of them as full of jokes or gags.
FENDT: It's a strange kind of timing that seems "off."
NOTEBOOK: Timing is really important. Timing within a scene, certainly; but also timing of your editing. Your films are very brisk. They always feel short, encapsulated. It feels like each scene has a pretty direct center that's being delivered and then moved on from, whether or not that's actually true or whether or not that center is a dramatic point or exposition. Or, as it often feels to me, a comedic point. A sense that a scene is building is to a punchline and right upon the punchline you're cutting and moving on. And sometimes that act, the cut to somewhere else, makes you realize that that was the scene—and that's a punchline. The whole form feels comedic.
FENDT: It's there, too. There's a degree to which it's in the writing. When I'm cutting, I put the scenes in the order in which I plan, and I go from basically right after the slate to right when I say "cut," just the entire thing. Then I watch that and see if there's any re-organization of the scenes that would make sense to me. After I've done that, I'm just cutting. With this movie, the first scenes that we shot were very abrupt, to the point where I gradually had started to get things to have a longer rhythm. I'm not sure how quite to describe it, "longer" isn't quite the word. Neither is "slow," but a different kind of a pace as we went along. The earlier shots I was sometimes holding as long as I could just to get the pace to feel good. This movie does have a lot of shots that I held because there was something happening in the frame that I liked, some character in the background, or something that someone did with their face after the scene ended but we were still rolling. But I always want something precise to cut on. That's something Luc Moullet talks about in his weird, strange sort-of handbook on film directing. He has a manual that I don't know how seriously anyone should take, but is pretty great. In it, he talks about how there should always be something very specific, an action or a gesture or line, that you're cutting on. There's a danger, too, in television often and in improvised comedy shows, to edit to a point where things build up and build up and build up to a punchline and then it cuts—that's a kind of mounting structure that I'm not using. The scenes are a bit more flat, dramatically.
NOTEBOOK: How much are these characters all based on actual people?
FENDT: To a degree. Normally it's taking elements from people's lives and trying to incorporate them...but that's not different than many fiction writers' work, I think, in terms of basing characters on people's lives they know and just taking details. It's different here because the details are then performed by those same individuals.
NOTEBOOK: Is that a practice you found primarily through convenience before making it a method?
FENDT: I was interested in not working with actors. There's one girl in Short Stay who has experience in theatre and she's a magician's on-stage assistant. For her scenes, I had written dialog, which we rehearsed—I didn't like it. I didn't like it before we rehearsed it but figured, "well, this is all we got, we should rehearse it anyway." Didn't like it once we rehearsed it; and after we rehearsed it, we were sitting around talking and she started telling stories about her work, and I liked those stories a lot and the way she related to her job, so for the film I asked her to tell the stories instead.
NOTEBOOK: Why didn't you want to work with professional actors?
FENDT: It wasn't one specific reason. The fact that I was writing for specific people and wanting to use elements of their personality. I knew that this was something that had been done in cinema...
NOTEBOOK: What's a good example of a film where the director asks the actors to play characters based on themselves?
FENDT: Well, I think that Charles Burnett is doing that in Killer of Sheep. I think Pedro Costa does that, those are characters for sure. I also didn't want to work with actors for these reasons: an aversion to things I dislike about contemporary performance. What I dislike about codes of naturalism in contemporary film. If I worked with actors, I feel like I'd have to be working through those kinds of things. If I work with non-actors it's not an issue, and I can do something else. The results are more surprising to me.
NOTEBOOK: Is it a pleasure to be working with your friends creatively like this? Or is it a challenge to be able to separate...
FENDT: —They're definitely friends but...Mike, Mark, Dan, Marta and Meg...there's some distance there that helps. I'm writing the script in New York; I'm only seeing them when I go to do some location research or character research or when I hang out with them specifically in mind to get something for the film. I also like the documentary aspect of specific details, location details. Showing Philadelphia in a certain light, from an angle that other people wouldn't if they were making a movie with more money. There'd have to be a distance, then, from the locations just because of the crew and producers and so forth. People who live in those locations every day, faces that are local to those environments—...there's an authenticity. Making a purely observational film about them would not be satisfying, because I'd still need a structure and that structure is necessarily fictional. 
NOTEBOOK: Was it a challenge for you to stretch that structure to feature length after working in shorts?
FENDT: No, I just had to get more scenes.
NOTEBOOK: It seems like you go back home quite a bit.
FENDT: Sometimes I go a little and sometimes a lot. It's only 90 minutes from New York. I really love Philadelphia as a place to go to and walk around in. I love it architecturally. All these brass doors on office buildings built in the 50s or 60s, maybe earlier, are great. New York doesn't have such a concentration of them. We don't highlight it, but in the background of one shot in the movie on Market Street you can see they knocked down an entire block to build a probably awful mall in a "business improvement district" style. I wanted to include a shot of that to document what is happening.
NOTEBOOK: You've done a lot of translation work for Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, whether it's texts about them, translating subtitles for Straub's new movies, or helping with the Museum of Modern Art's upcoming retrospective of their work. Theirs is a sharply politically active cinema, and I'm wondering how it had an impact on your filmmaking.
FENDT: One of the things I like about those films is that they all start with a very specific thing, something they fell in love with—usually a text. And wanting to bring that in a more or less objective manner to the audience to see it and see what maybe the Straubs fell in love with, without them giving you an interpretation. There's this kind of distanced, objective quality that gives the audience room to find their own footing in relationship to the material and to the characters. The most political thing about their movies ends up being statements they make around the films. There's not necessarily overt political content there. It's a thing that goes back to Truffaut, in the essay that started auteur cinema. He says too much of French cinema is scriptwriters who are failed writers trying to add scenes that weren't in the book, they weren't respecting the material, they weren't presenting the material. Maybe this presentational, dramatically flat, non-emphatic form of filmmaking is what I am taking from that.
NOTEBOOK: Your other major film activity is being a projectionist. Has that job changed the way you watch movies?
FENDT: It...has...not—no, I don't think so. It sometimes makes me not want to go to the movies, if I've been in the projection booth all week! Which makes me want to go out and walk extremely long distances. That pane of glass between you and the theatre puts you at a remove to such a degree that I don't feel like I'm engaging much with the movies when I'm projecting. I'm really not thinking about movies that are on the screen when I'm projecting, I'm more obsessing over minute technical details, pacing back and forth waiting for the changeover. [Laughs] I always wear my running shoes when I'm projecting.
NOTEBOOK: I'm curious about your basic impression of the economics of shooting on film.
FENDT: Since we ended up shooting everything in one shot sequence without any coverage for anything, that allowed us to do a lot of takes when necessary. The range is something from 3 to 25 takes. We could do 25 takes because we had what is probably considered a small amount of film if you're shooting every scene from three angles and you're shooting a significant chunk of the scene from three angles, but since we're only shooting from one, we could do more. You could do 15 takes total of three different angles, 5 takes per shot if you did close-up, close-up, and two-shot. But for this we could just do 15 takes of the whole thing. That, economically, was fine. Shooting on 16mm is not that expensive.
The smart thing to do—I'll tell aspiring filmmakers—is you would shoot on 16, you'd buy as much of the film you can, slower stocks, on eBay, because it's really cheap, you can find very good deals and it's probably not going to be foggy or have exposure issues. Slower stocks, because they're less sensitive to light and thus to heat and poor storage conditions. You'd shoot that; you'd have it developed—you can't really negotiate those costs but it's not really that expensive. And then you'd get a standard definition transfer—that's not expensive. You'd cut the negative and you'd make prints straight from the camera negative, because print stock is not expensive. The expensive thing—and I was insane to do it on my movie—is to do a 35mm print, because 35mm internegative stock is insanely expensive. You can avoid that cost and avoid, say, $18,000 not doing that. Just to get to the negative, what you're printing from—and that's talking the price down heavily.
I was stuck doing it because I shot my movie on Super 16, which is a widescreen aspect ratio, so my options were either a 16 print that's letterboxed, which doesn't look good, or a 35 print. I had to do it, because I wasn't going to project the film digitally because I don't really like the aesthetics of digital projection, except maybe in an emergency. But people can still show 16 prints, and I wonder if it's somehow more flexible, but I don't know. Micro cinemas in New York exist, micro cinemas in Canada exist, micro cinemas in Los Angeles exist, plus museums all have 16 projectors and you could, as a filmmaker, have your own 16 projector to tour around with. I think you could make the total film costs of a film done on 16 nowadays be in the $15 - 20,000 range. I see short films that cost $15,000 made with European government funding, and the movies suck, and they're shot digitally with huge crews.
In relationship to trying to eliminate creative decisions through practical rules that constrain how many choices you have, the budget should dictate how realistic or how abstract the movie becomes. That's something I like about the later Straub movies that are shot in his apartment—he has no money. Rather than shooting the movies with the more elaborate mise en scène of the films they'd make in the 80s when they had more of a budget, they just shoot in his apartment. They're shooting Kafka in his living room! To be realistic, you'd shoot Jackals and Arabs in the desert, but he has abstracted it and the whole thing is backlit by his living room windows. I think this makes potentially more interesting cinema than the person who has a lot of money and can do whatever they want. It's part of why the pre-Code directors who had low budgets are more interesting than the prestige directors who had a lot of money.
NOTEBOOK: Now that you've made your first feature, do you aim to make more features or to continue working in the short format?
FENDT: The question of lengths is stupid to me, the arbitrarily imposed lengths of what a feature film is or is not. Maybe I'm still working in the feature length of 1918—graduating from two-reelers to four-reelers!

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