Interview by The New Current
British film journal "The New Current" interviewed me about my film, Inertia, which is featured in the Cannes Film Festival's Short Film Corner this year. It was a terrific opportunity to talk about the lessons I learned in making the film, and the changes that have occurred in my perspective about filmmaking in the years that have since passed. Thanks so much to The New Current for reaching out and taking the time to interview me, it was such a pleasure to share my experience with their readers.
You can check out a transcript of the interview on this page or check it out on The New Current's website here: http://www.thenewcurrent.co.uk/#!cannes-2016-travis-lee-ratcliff-/cn3d
"Inertia" Synopsis - 1929, a month before the stock-market crash. Jack O’Connor decides to leave his career in crime and move back to the small town he grew up in. He soon finds something key is missing.
Hello Travis, thanks for talking to tNC, how's everything going?
Thank you for having me. Everything is going well here in Austin, Texas.
Congratulations on having Inertia part of this years Short Film Corner, what does it mean for you to have your film at cannes?
It’s a great honor to be able to show the film at Cannes. I’ve always admired the festival and dreamt of being able to present my work there. The first feature film set I worked on was a French-American co-production that filmed in Paris and Soissons, so I’ve always felt like France is where I first learned the craft of filmmaking. To be able to take this project back to France is very special to me.
Are any nerves setting in ahead of the festival?
Not particularly. Unfortunately, one of the challenges of being an independent filmmaker is making difficult choices about how your limited resources will be allocated. When I ran the numbers on traveling to represent the film at the festival, it just didn’t make financial sense. I was faced with a choice of putting those resources to my next project or attending the festival, and I chose the former.
Tell me a little bit about Inertia how did the film come about?
“Inertia” takes place in the months before the Great Depression. It follows a brutal, hired killer who decides to retire, end his career in organized crime, and settle in the small town he grew up in. He takes up painting. He pursues a relationship with a girl too young for him. Despite his wealth, his freedom, and his relationship, he feels totally unhappy and unfulfilled. He misses the excitement and brutality of his earlier life. The film asks the question: can a man change himself? What is the nature of our character? Does it define us, or can we escape the gravity of our life choices?
Home from university on a long holiday break, I decided I would take on a thirty day series of writing exercises. Each day, I attempted to complete a short screenplay between five and fifteen pages. The goal was to work so quickly, so frantically, that I would be unable to censor myself or over-consider my impulses. The result was a lot of half ideas. But that wasn’t a bad thing, necessarily. Some of them felt like interesting half-ideas. One of those scripts was the original germ of what would become “Inertia.”
I re-worked the script over the course of a year, and showed it to many of my collaborators and fellow directing students. With a lot of notes, I began to develop the project as one of my major directing projects for my second to last year in school.
What was the inspiration behind the film?
There was a saying that I learned in my high school ethics curriculum: “Your choices become your habits, your habits become your character, and your character becomes your destiny.”
It was said with a lot of enthusiasm. I found it horrifying. It was like describing a prison that we each build for ourselves, without realizing we are doing it.
As I began to write “Inertia,” I kept that quote in the forefront of my mind and was interested in seeing the fate of a man who, wants to change who he is, but discovers he can’t. This seems even more haunting to me considering what little real choice many people have in determining their life’s path. Some of us do what we must to survive in order to make the best out of a difficult situation.
What was the most challenging scene for you to write and film?
One subplot in the film is the arrival of the Great Depression in October of 1929. The script describes a bank run that occurs in the small town our protagonist has made his new home. At the moral climax of the film, a discussion between Jack and his brother, there is a juxtaposition between the run on the bank and their conversation. Even in Savannah, Georgia finding a period style bank was extremely difficult. We ultimately settled on an excellent location in Vidalia, Georgia, hours away from Savannah.
What we failed to consider was how difficult this would make rallying extras. What was originally supposed to be a large set-piece of a scene had to become something very different on the day of shooting.
We re-arranged our blocking and lensing and staged the scene in extreme close-ups in slow motion. By shifting our attention to the details: hands grabbing frantically at money, faces screaming, we were able to pull off the scene with only three or four extras.
The visual dynamic shifted into a much more surreal and emotionally driven perspective, even though we lost the production value the larger scale scene was intended to convey. I felt it turned out to be one of those happy accidents that can really benefit a film, but one that also leaves you terrified after wrapping up the day.
Looking back is there anything you would do differently on this film?
Absolutely. In the time that has passed since I made this film, I’ve learned an enormous amount about myself, the kind of films I want to make, and my craft. I’m very thankful when I look back on this project for the opportunity to learn and grow through making it, but there are fundamental changes in my work as a writer and director that have taken place since completing it. And of course, there are the limitations you have at the time, such as crammed schedules and a narrow ability to see exactly how the aspects will fit together. You always ask yourself, if you’d had an extra day to take on a particular scene, what would you have been able to achieve?
However, one thing I can say with certainty is that I am still so incredibly proud of all the contributions my collaborators made to this project. The performances, the cinematography, the amazing original score, the excellent sound design, and all the work of every individual crew member still shine through to me when I watch the project. So beyond mulling over my own limitations as a director, I mostly feel gratitude for the help I received from so many talented, creative people.
Has it been hard to let go of the film and give it up to audiences?
It can be difficult. I still feel dread when watching the film screen in front of audiences. It’s something I’ve experienced all of the eight years I’ve been making films. If it were possible, I would probably avoid being present for the screening of most of my films. That said, I love discussing the projects with audience members during Q&A sessions, and that continues to drive me to follow my films to festivals when I am able.
It's hard when you observe the film a year, or more, after having completed it. At that point, you’ve moved on from it. Because I treat projects like personal areas of myself that I want to explore, confronting them after time has passed is jarring in the same way that hearing your own voice or seeing old photos of yourself can feel uncomfortable. It’s a reflection of you, but it isn’t you anymore.
Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker?
No, originally I began working on theatre productions at a very young age and had a deep passion for that work. When I was sixteen my directing mentors encouraged me to try making a short film. That experience was life changing for me.
I felt so engaged by the whole act of making the film, from pre-production through post-production that I spent the rest of my time in high school making short films. My school helped me tremendously in building a portfolio that made it possible for me to attend film school and continue being mentored by professionals and peers with experiences beyond my own.
What was the first film you saw that made you think ‘yeah this is for me’?
There were films I loved growing up. They impacted me on a visceral and thrilling level. I don’t think I loved them as films however, I loved them as stories, as worlds, and as adventures. Films like Star Wars were probably the first bolt of electricity that made me excited about experiencing what the movies had to offer, but I don’t know if that’s the same thing as falling in love with the artifice of cinema itself.
I also first came to making films through directing and acting in theatre productions, so I think I may have fallen in love with cinema years after I had started directing and showing my first short films at festivals.
If I had to pick out one film that I firmly believe changed my life, I think it was Terence Malick’s “Days of Heaven.” That film was unlike anything I had ever experienced at the time. I first watched it in a class at university called Language of Cinema, where we explored different films and discussed the visual language behind the movies. Watching that film was like an out of body experience.
It was so rich with ambiguities, a point of view, and a mesmerizing tone that overpowered the plot in the best of ways. I thought it was magical. Before that, I don’t think I understood that films could be that way. The film was working on an almost spiritual level. Since then, I’ve always sought out films and a process of making films, that aspires to emulate that kind of cinematic experience.
Some years after that, I encountered another film that changed my life and work in a similar way to “Days of Heaven.” In 2013, right after graduating film school, I found Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color.” Here was a film that not only seemed to be tapped into the same wellspring of energy that Malick’s “Days of Heaven” was working with, but it had been taken to even further heights.
For a film to be that powerful, that innovative, and be produced on a microscopic budget, made me look carefully back at the films being produced in my home state of Texas. I decided to move to Austin because of the incredible microbudget filmmaking that is happening in Texas in the cinema of David Lowery, Augustine Frizzell, Kat Candler, Yen Tan, Toby Halbrooks, Andrew Bujalski, Trey Edward Shults, as well as many others, and that is very much supported by Richard Linklater and the Austin Film Society. I felt, and still feel, like something incredible is happening here that is underreported, and that it may be brilliantly subversive to the way we make and watch films.
How much has your approach to writing and directing changed since your debut film?
Every film I make seems to completely change the way I look at writing and directing.
So far, I’ve only produced and directed short films, so I can’t even imagine how my perspective will change once I finish my first feature.
As an overall theme, I’d say that when I began making films I was obsessed with planning and designing every facet of the film in advance, to the point where it was hurting the filmmaking. You sort of have to be that obsessive when you’re just learning the technical dimensions of the craft just to avoid shooting yourself in a corner you can’t get out of. However, as I gained more experience and made more films, I started to become fascinated by what I perceived was being lost in our over zealous planning.
A film can be perfectly executed and still be totally spiritually dead.
“Inertia” was the first moment in my filmmaking where I felt we had planned enough that we had the luxury of listening to the film, so to speak, as we were producing it on the set.
My cinematographer and I found that as we watched the performances and the framing, and listened to our instincts, we could discover totally new things about the film right alongside our crew and performers, and we could adjust our designs to incorporate these epiphanies into the filmmaking. That was a tremendously exciting revelation.
The way that the process of making the film, informs and enriches the film you are making, has totally radicalized the way I make films now. While I still plan out as much as I can in advance, I’m very conscious of allowing the process to engage with our preconceived notions of what our work is exploring.
What have been the biggest lessons you've learnt so far?
Community is everything. I could never have made this film without the incredible filmmaking community I was a part of in Savannah. Moving to a new city, this has been one of the most important lessons to re-learn. We are all in this together, and we all have to help one another in order to succeed. Another person’s success is not a bad thing. When one of us is successful, we all are successful.
We have to maintain that attitude as filmmakers. We have to be as giving as is possible to one another. This kind of work can be brutal. Without a strong community that cares about your mission and that you yourself are also willing to contribute to, I don’t think a sustainable cinema is possible.
Now you can be reflective what advice would you offer a fellow filmmaker?
I think I’d tell fellow filmmakers to only pursue this if you feel like you have no other choice. It’s very difficult, and the industry we are a part of has some deep economic dysfunctions that make the gap between the successful and aspirational very wide.
Another piece of advice I’d give anyone who is looking to make an impact on this industry is to think about the how emerging digital distribution and financing methods can be used in innovative and exciting ways.
We absolutely have to put more of our energy into building a better economic infrastructure and toolset for ourselves and our film communities. We have to take some of the innovative spirit of Silicon Valley startups and put it to use in the service of the cinema.
I feel like there is an enormous opportunity for filmmakers to take advantage of this disruptive moment in distribution and financing. We have to build and experiment with new ways of funding our content and distributing our stories.
By doing so, we can bring about a powerful shift in how we survive as filmmakers. For example: the invention of Kickstarter may have been more important to independent filmmaking than most of the films released since then. Companies like Austin based film distribution startup “Tugg” are also great at demonstrating what the potential is to fundamentally change how distribution or financing work in this industry.
And if anyone can do it, filmmakers can.
I’ve never met harder working people than I have in the independent film world, where there is never enough time or money, but the shot still gets in the can. I can’t help but feel if we put even half that energy into improving and innovating in the economic structure of our business we might all have an incredibly easier time in our life as filmmakers.
I’d advise any fellow young filmmakers to exploit this moment and build new tools, take advantage of existing digital tools, and tell stories for communities that feel under served by the conventional moving picture industry. And if you do, tell other filmmakers about your experience. We are all explorers and we have to learn from each other’s experiences.
And finally what do you hope people will take away from your film?
I hope everyone takes something different away from the film. I’ve shown it to a lot of audiences at this point and am thankful for all the positive responses I’ve gotten, but so many of the readings of the film are totally different than anything I could have expected or designed.
I think what I love most about the cinema is the way it can function as an opaque looking glass. We can all look through it together and see totally different things.