[Internet trolls], even though I largely find them reprehensible, are the only rebels left in our culture.
How do you review a film that’s deliberately half-crazed? One so overloaded with incident, character and problem hair, you begin to fear for your own life? Where plot logic is smothered in psychedelic smog? Eugene Kotlyarenko is barbed wire masquerading as a ball of wool.
A Wonderful Cloud is way too eccentric to land awards, but it’ll probably live longer than whatever gets them. This is the work of a major American filmmaker, repelling categorization and messing with our heads. A second viewing will be compulsory and we’re pretty sure it adds up. In the end, this is just a movie about a guy who has lost a girl. You dig?
So you’re originally from Odessa?
I was born there, yeah. It’s the common Jewish-Russian-Ukrainian story where everyone immigrated out of there in 1989, going from Ukraine to Poland to Austria to Italy, then from Italy, people came to America, Israel, South Africa, Australia or whatever. We came to Brooklyn and I grew up in Brighton Beach. I grew up in this housing project, basically. Then I moved to Long Island, which is where my mom lives. I’m seeing her tomorrow. It’s going to be, like, a Russian breakfast with pickled herring, potatoes and shit. I went to middle school and high school in Long Island. I went to Columbia in Manhattan. Then I moved to L.A.
What did you study at Columbia?
I studied philosophy, Russian literature, art history, film, psychology… I actually had a good photography class with this guy Tom Roma. He was a real hard-ass. In class, he’d always be like, “What’s this photo about?” and it’s like, “Oh, you know, it’s about being molested.” And he goes, “No! That’s not in there!” People would cry. No, we didn’t cry. I thought he was kinda cool, but also stupid. I think it’s important, if you’re gonna be pedagogical, to be flexible. A really good teacher I had was James Schamus. He ran Focus Features and wrote Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He had a very platonic form of teaching, in the truest sense. It’s not like Plato’s Dialogues where he already knows the answers ahead of time. It was about leading you to your own conclusions through constant questioning. He’s definitely a genius. Can you imagine what type of brain it requires to be a really good professor, a really good studio executive, and a really good writer of scripts? Those are three very different things. Shout out to James Schamus.
You’re really good at reading people and sort of figuring out what makes someone standout. How did you find these people who are now your friends and collaborators?
You just have to be okay with being alone and lonely so that you’re not desperate to just be friends with whomever. Then when you find someone who’s really special, you just hold on for dear life. You feel blessed to meet that person because you’re usually alone, like, watching movies or whatever. A lot of people are friends with their roommates from college or something, but I just think that’s stupid. I mean, if you get lucky, great. This is a really annoying and pretentious answer, but I like people that are dynamic, interesting, and magnetic. I like people who make me uncomfortable because, socially, I like to be the center of attention. When someone shows up and I shut the fuck up, it’s because that person is interesting to me.
When you’re making a movie, it’s really important to work with magnetic people who command attention because if it’s a boring-ass person, you’re going to make a boring-ass movie. People who succeed in Hollywood are more or less talented and magnetic. That’s why they’ve made it. But to have access to them, you need to go through agents and managers and have lots of money and shit. So it’s my job as an independent filmmaker, I guess, to find my own version of people who are stars or people whose persona is more powerful than anything else. You craft roles for their persona. I wrote all of those characters based on those people, or a funny version of what I thought those people are like. I knew they could pull it off because it’s not too much of a stretch. I also knew they could pull it off because they’re all very intelligent and just “get it.”
Where did you find Lauren Avery? I had no idea who she was until I watched A Wonderful Cloud, and I just checked out Feast of Burden. She’s rad.
Lauren is someone I met at this nightclub. She was standing near a pole by herself and I thought, “This person looks insanely interesting. I need to go up to her.” We got along really well, but this phalanx of gay men came and swooped her away, telling me to fuck off, basically. I wasn’t actually creeping on her. I wasn’t even trying to fuck her or anything. We just had a really deep connection and she understood that. Those guys were like, “Get out of here with your little creep vibe!” I went back the following week and she wasn’t there, and I was upset. But as I was leaving, she came in. She was like, “Eugene, I wanted to find you! I wanted to come and apologize.” So she came over to my house later that night and she says, “I have to tell you something, Eugene. I’m an alien from another planet and you’re the only person who can understand me.” I’m like, “I don’t think you’re an alien. But I think I understand you.” When you’re friends with people who do a lot of shit, you hang out with them for a week and don’t see them for a year, you know? Adulthood and shit.
She seems to have a big following on social media as well. I was looking at her Vine stuff.
That’s what I’m saying! I’m going to toot my own dick a little here, but one part of it is targeting and figuring out who these magnetic people are, but then—this is where my dick comes in—they’re not easy people to wrangle. Professional actors sign a contract and they acknowledge that you’re the director and say, “I’m going to trust you.” When you’re working with people who are literally these charismatic loose canons, you have to do a few special things to gain their trust so they know you’re not exploiting them, but actually elevating and worshiping them in a way that’s also beneficial to the story you’re trying to tell. So it comes with the territory of working with people who don’t really know the hierarchical arrangements of filmmaking. But what comes out of that is often more collaborative and much more rewarding, I think, for the viewer. I’m pretty interesting, but Lauren is extremely interesting. Elisha Drons is extremely strange and interesting. In Feast of Burden, Paul Gellman, the landlord—
Oh my god. That guy is a legend.
He’s amazing! So once you gain everyone’s trust, they can really give themselves over fully. I think that’s what professional Hollywood stars do, too. All the great stars are just their personas being injected into an artificial creation. When you’re watching John Wayne, you’re watching John Wayne. You’re not watching the character in Red River or the character in The Searchers—they’re all John Wayne. With Kate, if you look at all her roles, she’s playing a variation on her persona, and it’s not over-the-top or freakish like a lot of the other people that I’m drawn to. But it certainly has a signature and a stamp. It has a subtlety and depth to it that draws a lot of filmmakers and storytellers in. She has this really good tension between the polite and the psychotic. She can twist her persona in ways that are powerfully warm and powerfully frightening.
If you’re relying on improv and found moments while shooting A Wonderful Cloud, what are the parameters that you start out with? And you shot this in nine days, which is insane.
It’s like, “Let’s make sure everybody doesn’t want to kill me/each other by the end of the day. These are the seven or eight scenes we have to get done today. These are the three locations.” I didn’t have an AD whose job it is to keep the schedule, so it was all on me. The blueprint or the treatment was pretty detailed. The arc of the story was pretty set. We didn’t say, like, “Oh! There’s a three-legged dog!” and make a whole tangent related to that. Although we did see a three-legged dog and I did say, “Let’s get it in the movie.” It was going to be too complicated… See? I’m not the best person to set the parameters. You sort of do it intuitively. When you’re making a movie like that, you’re walking a tightrope between a lot of planning and a lot of endorphins. You’re in survival mode as a filmmaker because you just gotta keep moving and keep getting it. So it’s three or four takes and that’s it. This is not a David Fincher movie, it’s a Werner Herzog/Clint Eastwood thing. That certainly puts the pressure on the actors to perform at a really high caliber right away, which is good. They won’t be able to replicate what was done before, which is always really important for editing. Everyone just has to operate at a peak level all the time.
There was one particular moment in the film that made a lasting impression on me. It’s when you and Kate are lying in the middle of the street and we pull up to reveal the fireworks over the L.A. skyline. There’s a hint of absurdity in it because, just moments before, you were at each other’s throats, but I found that sequence incredibly moving.
I actually had that in mind before anything else. It’s so cool that you pick on that because that’s the genesis of the movie. That’s basically when I decided Kate was smart and I was dumb. About a month a half before we started, Kate asked me, “Why don’t we make an improv movie?” and I was like, “No. Good to see you. Bye.” There’s was this guy who had been saying he wanted to make a movie with me, but I didn’t know what to make with this guy because a lot of these scripts that I’m writing are out of his price range. I mean, he’s a painter. He’s not a fucking banker from Macau or a thousand dentists or Warner Brothers. He’s a guy with enthusiasm and financial means from his work, but it’s limited compared to a real production company. Anyway, I’m driving over to his place, knowing I’m going to have a meeting and he’s going to expect me to talk about the different movie, and I said, “No, I want to make this improv movie with Kate.”
I like thinking about real things that happen in the world and finding ways to incorporate them into a film. So for a long time now I’ve been wanting to make a movie at, like, a music festival because I think that’s the dumbest environment. There’s this movie called Medium Cool that takes place at the Democratic National Convention. They placed actors into the convention and created this fictional narrative in a very crazy, real environment. So I always wanted to do a scene that was a little bit like La Notte, the [Michelangelo] Antonioni movie, where the couple just scream at each other and fight at a party the whole time. All of a sudden, the screams are taken over by fireworks, and you didn’t get that it was Fourth of July. The camera just leaves them and the fighting behind, which is also kind of an Antonioni thing, and just takes a look at the expanse of fireworks. There’s a 360 helicopter shot, then comes back down when it’s done and they’re fucking. I told That to Christian [Rosa], who became the executive producer, and he goes, “Yeah, man. We’re going to make this movie. Let’s do it.” I got in the car, like, “Fuck, I have to write all the other scenes.”
I need to watch that again now because I’m so fixated on it. It’s beautiful.
I’m glad we got it. That’s the climax of our relationship, you know? The movie is about negotiating something that’s intuitive and something that isn’t. I’m friends with a lot of my exes. I have a deep connection with them, so to ignore that, to me, has always been weird. That’s why I remain with them. That connection is still there. At the same time, there’s obvious tension based on that because you track their lives and they track your life. Things move in different directions and you start to think about how things could’ve been different if you stayed together, what I did or what they did wrong to fuck it up. You’re jealous of them or they’re jealous of you—it’s just complicated.
You knew it was coming: What’s next?
I have a bunch of scripts that I’m really excited about. I have an erotic thriller. I have a movie about “griefers” and Internet trolls, which, I think, is the movie that I really want to make. It’s going to take some money. I wrote that one for actual Hollywood stars like Shia LaBeouf, Eric André, and Michael Cera. These are people who are interesting and complicated. Shia LaBeouf’s personal life is very rarely reflected in his choices as an actor, and not just roles, but his acting choices. For instance, he was in Nymphomaniac, but I think he’s just playing a variation on some other character.
One thing I think about a lot is that, because of the Internet now, the things that are rebellious are really easily commodified and brought back into popular culture, almost immediately. The second that something rebellious is out there, it immediately becomes co-opted by, like, Rihanna or Kanye. All of these people are geniuses and have really great teams working with them to sort of find ways to say nihilistic things that are also easy to commodify and make money off of and become cool and sexy for everybody else. But trolling, which is a truly nihilistic, hateful thing that does not make anyone really feel good, can never be commodified. It’s probably the only thing out there, in my mind, in terms of behaviorally or the aesthetic signifiers of it, which are truly problematic because it’s really transgressive and it doesn’t make feel anyone feel good, so you really can’t make money off of it. So those people, to me, even though I largely find them reprehensible, are the only rebels left in our culture. That, to me, is important and I’m trying to make a movie about that. There’s other stuff, too. I’m making a movie about the art world. Don’t take any of those ideas! They’ve all been fucking “copywritten” at the Writers Guild.