When I’m making films, I want to do it for that kid in high school who doesn’t have one about them.
It’s been seven months since Xander Robin’s debut feature, Are We Not Cats, knocked us sideways at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in South Korea. After leaving the theater, we reached out to the New York-based filmmaker straightaway to fawn all over it and resolved to speak closer to the film’s release. It’s a true original. A slam dunk. The cat’s meow, if you want.
Based on his award-winning 2013 short film of the same name, Are We Not Cats tails Eli (Michael Patrick Nicholson), a thirtysomething who loses his thankless job and girlfriend literally overnight. Rubbing salt in his wound are his parents who abruptly break the news that they’re moving to Arizona, which effectively leaves him homeless in Brooklyn. But there’s a consolation prize: the beat-up box truck that Eli will score one-off moving gigs with, when he’s not living inside of it. One such opportunity brings him around a motley crew of party people, including the mysterious Anya (Chelsea Lopez), whose trichotillomania and trichophagia—the compulsive pulling-out of one’s own hair and the consumption of same—are only matched by Eli’s own peculiar tendencies.
This is a companion feature to our in-depth Q&A with the film’s star, Michael Patrick Nicholson.
Are We Not Cats is now playing in select theaters.
So you just got back into New York. Did you go on another reptilian adventure?
Well, the film that I’m working on—it’s somewhat reptilian. I’m exploring this one region of Florida. I guess I’m trying to make a neo-noir basically in the Everglades. I’m probably going to end up moving back there in June. I’m originally from South Florida.
Very cool. Can I take you back to the beginnings of Are We Not Cats? You made a short film in 2013 with the same title, which also stars the feature’s lead Michael Patrick Nicholson. When did you first have the germ of an idea for what would later become the full length?
This probably goes all the way back to when I was coming up with ideas for movies in school. There was a short film I did with Michael called The Virgin Herod, which was the first time that we worked together. I had already known that I would make that movie, but we had to pitch a few other ideas so I decided to write the other conflicts down. At the time, I had just realized that it would be okay to explore all these things that I thought were totally taboo—things from my childhood that I felt self-conscious about or made me feel like a freak—and one of those was trichotillomania. I was also trying to explore romance involving body horror, which for some reason, I to this day feel are intertwined in a way that makes sense to me. So I wrote this conflict about a guy with mild trichotillomania meeting someone with severe trichophagia and their romance manifesting catastrophically. And in order for this scenario to happen, it had to be fucking freezing cold so no one would know whether you have hair or not, or if you plucked all of your eyelashes out. I was in Florida at the time when this idea came to me.
I continued to make films in school and after I graduated, I decided to write the script. I really liked this idea so I wanted to keep fleshing it out. I moved to New York, honestly, to specifically make this film, thinking that I would probably make it immediately for like $5 dollars. Then I started to realize that’s totally impossible. I wrote the first draft of the script, which is basically the last half of the movie. The character was always this kind of guy who’s based on my dad. I think his name was initially Boris. [Laughs] Initially, he was this straight-up truck driver who’s not cool. I always imagined him as something close to Travis Bickle, if he wasn’t a murderer. It reminded me of the scene in Taxi Driver where he takes a girl to a porno and doesn’t understand that that’s not a good thing to do. So someone with no social cues. I was like 22 when I wrote the script. I just quickly realized, okay, let’s just make a short that’s totally different but with the same scenario because it will be more fun. For instance, in the short, the ending has someone puking up a hairball, whereas in the film, it’s a surgery scene. I thought it’d be good to see how these actors work and see how Matt [Clegg], the DP, and I work, while exploring making a movie in New York.
At the time, the script was called something different and the short was going to be the joke-y one. At the time, the script was some amalgamation of the words “Rapunzel” and “bezoar.” In my head, I realize now that I had no understanding of the marketplace of film so I was just writing things that, to me, were gonna carve out new genres and carve out new audiences. Now I’m starting to realize that, a lot of the times, films fall into obscurity if it’s not words that are immediately recognizable for people. So I ended up calling the feature the same thing because it helped me sleep better at night. The short really helped me to understand that I wanted to push the trichotillomania aspect of the movie harder. When you’re filming that stuff on set, everyone’s weirded out and pause like, “I have to do this?” I feel like the short was a little bit vanilla in the trichotillomania aspect and then somehow we ended up filming a really insane sex scene, and it kind of became known more for that instead of the insane hair-pulling parts.
How much did the film change since the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival? I remember Michael telling me at the time that you had shot some additional material.
There are just two shots at the end that replaced a different scene. The two shots are of Michael with no hair so he was just bald with a shaved head. I just wanted to make the ending a little more absurd so there’s a shot of Michael in the forest with no hair and a shot of him putting on a wig.
Like all the best filmmakers, you have in your artillery a real knack for sussing out talent and seeing that potential in actors. Michael is of course great, as are Chelsea Lopez and Michael Godere. Getting fringier, I learned that the logging business owner is a nonprofessional.
It’s funny—we were trying to make this movie in a more traditional way with two or three times the budget that we had with a casting director and all that stuff. It really felt like, we either make this movie now or I’m going to spend the next three to four years trying to make it. I didn’t feel like doing that so I just saw an opportunity to make it during that time and everyone was down. And to do that, I knew I would have to cast the movie myself because we couldn’t afford a casting director. For some reason, I knew deep down that I could cast the movie myself. The policy was this: the first best person that shows up; don’t over think it; if it feels right, go with that. A lot of the times, that ended up being some parts cast online and sometimes we got insanely lucky. With one of my favorite actors in the movie, I had never met him. I just saw a photo of [Bill Weedon] and thought he seemed good. That’s the guy at the diner in the soup scene.
Oh yeah! He’s great.
Maybe I saw a video of him speaking, but I was just lucky that worked out and I was able to get him to understand what to do in that scene. Some of my favorite actors in the movie, or at least with the bit parts, came out of random and insane circumstances. With the dad, played by Ernst Zorin, I was trying to basically street cast in Brighton Beach and find anyone who could do it. A lot of people were flattered, but ultimately, they were like, “I don’t have time to do this movie.” Then I found a theater production out there and photos of this legendary theater actor. So I emailed the director of the play like, “Do you know anyone similar to this guy who could be in my film?” and he said, “Why don’t you just ask him?” Ernst didn’t really speak English. His wife, a sweetheart, gave me and Laura [Cristina Ortiz], the costume designer, a nice meal when we did the fitting and she translated everything for him. It was pretty funny because that was our first day of shooting and Michael went off-book. So if he messed up his line, it would screw up Ernst because he had to remember the last English word that came before to know that was his cue to go next.
Initially, I would try to cast the actual owner of the junkyard or the logging business and they said, “No,” which they usually do—they have other things to do. By exploring all these areas, I was able to meet so many people that I felt were stars themselves and had a cinematic quality. The guy who plays the junkyard owner, Joe [Buldo]—I hope he gets to see the movie somehow—just came in with the guy who owned the garbage truck. They were friends and he was in my living room saying some funny stuff. I begged him to be in the movie and he didn’t want to do it. He must’ve told his wife or thought about it overnight because the next day he was like, “Okay, let’s do it.”
What did you find the most challenging to pull off, everything considered?
A few things like getting the locations, I guess. But casting Chelsea—I don’t really know who else could’ve done that part. Especially in that time, I was pretty much an untested filmmaker. I made a few shorts, but it was nothing anyone was writing about. With a part like that, you have to be very willing to be vulnerable and trusting of the director. I don’t think I even completely earned that type of trust in my previous films so I just had to sort of convince her that this was going to be a good movie and she made the decision to do it. I think casting that part was probably the biggest challenge. Also, we didn’t have a production designer. We had a mishmash of people doing certain things. Basically, we had multiple art directors, but no unifying production designer. I guess that was me, and I was also the unifying casting director. It makes you appreciate how, on a bigger budget film, there are actual department heads that are taking all of this stuff into account.
Then there were some normal, logistical things. We hit a cop car with the camera once. This was a scene near the end with Alice [Frank] where Michael’s in the car passed out. That whole scene was supposed to be done with a camera rig outside the picture car and the other car smashed into the camera. The camera was okay, but the hostess tray was destroyed. Luckily, we had insurance. That was probably the worst thing that happened. The make-up was a huge challenge, too. We only had a couple of days with the make-up. I would’ve loved like a week. So normal indie film challenges during a fairly short amount of time, convincing people that it’s going to be a project they should try hard on. For a lot of people, things are jobs. For some people, it’s a labor of love. So sometimes it feels bad to make people work 12 to 14-hour days. In the future, I’d love to be able to work 8-hour days and shoot for a longer period of time. But on an indie film, because of money, you have to shoot way longer days. It feels bad to do that to people. We didn’t work 6-day weeks. We did 4-day weeks and that was a compromise just to get some of those longer days.
You have a really great eye for visuals, too. That goes for the flashier moments, but also in the overall unifying aesthetic. The worldbuilding is really spectacular. I actually wondered about the opening credits because it looks practical, but then CGI in certain moments.
[Laughs] It’s practical, but that’s cool it looks CGI. I bought like 20 wigs on eBay and this aquarium from PetSmart that we eventually returned. This was done after the movie had wrapped. It was myself, the DP, and the gaffer. We just rigged up the lighting so it looked like different lighting set ups in the movie. We thought it would look kind of similar to the opening shot of him on the garbage truck, thinking that we’re going to cut with that. We filmed that in slow motion on a macro lens with hair thrown around and took some of the best parts. Yeah, I like those shots a lot. I was living with the DP at the time so I would talk a lot about the visuals of the movie. I feel like it was always going to be this visceral movie. If you can appreciate the texture of visuals and the sound of movies versus watching a movie because you want to see an adaptation of a book or something, then this movie would work. I think the people that it doesn’t work for are people that don’t really like or appreciate those aspects of movies. That’s fine—they can watch different movies. So we’re always thinking about the visuals and how they relate to introspective feelings.
What about this amazing soundtrack? “Don’t Be Surprised” by The Diamonettes, for instance, which I’d never heard before, adds so much vibrancy and dimension to the film.
Yeah, “Don’t Be Surprised” is a good jam. I’m glad you like it. I wrote a bunch of songs into this movie and we couldn’t really get any of them. That’s sort of a normal thing. So this guy Garret Morris who’s friends with the two producers, Theo [Brooks] and Josh [Sobel], was our music supervisor and he pointed us in the direction of some awesome labels that we could work with. We just went from there. We looked through their entire catalogue and “Don’t Be Surprised” was one of the first songs where we were like, “We can work with this,” and we’re not really compromising too much. There were some great songs there. In the original script, there was always this kind of ultra-sweet romantic music that helps create this feeling of painfully seeking romance.
So you went to Florida State with Michael. Did you have a good time in film school?
Yeah, I had a good time. Florida State was really cool. I only applied to schools in Florida. I probably still would’ve made films if I didn’t get into a film school. Florida State was a really interesting program, especially for Bachelor’s because you don’t spend that much time in the classroom. You’re not using your brain as much. You’re pretty much thrown into the fire and you learn how to do every job. My films always got really low scores in clarity of narrative and high scores on originality. It was cool at an early age to be put into a Hollywood-esque system, but in this really weird place of Tallahassee. I think the biggest thing that we all got from school was the people we met because it’s a pretty unpretentious film school. It’s a public school. I went for free basically because of social programming that no longer exists called Bright Futures. A lot of the locations you film in had people that would let you shoot for free and there was still something kind of nice about it. There was a sense of wonder with people making movies in their location, whereas when you move to New York and L.A., everyone wants to charge you. It’s still a kind of playground that way. I didn’t really learn mentally there. I just kind of learned in the way an athlete would. I think we felt in a way like athletes, just getting stronger at physically making movies. A lot of the people I work with to this day are from that school so I really liked that pursuit.
What do you think were your earliest influences and inspirations in terms of filmmaking?
It’s hard to say. I feel like I changed what I was obsessed with every year starting from when I was younger. Probably the first thing that I was obsessed was, you know, basketball, basketball cards, or Pokémon. I was really into Erector Sets and building stuff. I didn’t necessarily think that any of those things could realistically translate into a job that I would like to do. I didn’t really like movies until probably the ninth grade. I was more into cartoons and stuff. I can’t say it was a single movie. It was more that, over time, I wanted to make movies with friends. I bought a camera to film them skateboarding. Then I started to really enjoy physically making movies, especially editing them together. I feel like every single time it would be a conversation with my parents because no one in my family has done any type of art—it’s always been normal jobs. My dad is actually a stock trader, which is not that normal. I basically tried to do a good job of making films to convince my parents to continue being supportive. There was no option of applying out-of-state. It was either film school at FSU or probably get an engineering degree. I hesitate to point towards any particular movie just because I feel like it’s a cliché. [Laughs] I liked movies that made me feel less like a freak. I didn’t like movies because I thought movies were Fast and the Furious, right? No knock against that movie, but I thought they were for popular kids. When I started discovering that they made a different movie for each kid in high school, then I was like, “This is awesome.” When I’m making films, I want to do it for the kid in high school who doesn’t have one about them. I don’t know if that’s necessarily what Hollywood does anymore. I think that’s the responsibility of independent filmmakers now. But Hollywood used to make a movie for each kid in class.
So are you actively filling a void or a niche that’s clearly missing when you’re making films?
Probably with the last two things I made [which includes the short Lance Lizardi]. There’s not much calculation. The only calculation is maybe wanting to elicit, “This is crazy! I’ve never seen anything like this.” There isn’t much calculation in thinking, “This is what’s going to bring me to the next step,” blah blah blah. It’s more, “I haven’t seen this in a movie. I’d love to see this in a movie.” Sometimes I think there’s a gap between the movies I’d like to see and the movies that I’m capable of making, and I’m trying to bridge that gap as tightly as possible. I knew that these images and feelings—the trichotillomania aspect of Are We Not Cats—is kind of what drove me to make it in the first place because I’d never seen that in a movie and I think I can introduce you to this place. Everything else was just sort of me figuring out how to build a world around it.
When are you aiming to shoot the neo-noir you mentioned earlier?
I’m probably going to be a little bit more calculated on that one. I’m probably going to wait until I think the script is really good. I’ve been working on it for probably nine months and I was working on a totally different movie before that. I started working on the neo-noir basically since last summer. So I think as early as this fall. But I have no idea.
Are you thinking about the casting? Do you already have a mood board at this stage?
I’m just working on the story and the script. This is the second draft that I’m working on. The mood board—I have that sort of in my head. I have a bunch of images already. If I need to communicate that to someone, I can easily make a mood board. The casting is also sort of in my head, but it’s more about arriving at a script that could help communicate exactly what I want to do in the best way. I’m also opening my head up to having a bigger audience on the next movie.