I have close family members who are alcoholics and I had a few formative moments in my childhood where I witnessed really severe alcoholism that rattled me.
A superbly confident throwback to the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, Americana marks Zachary Shedd’s first feature film as writer and director. Anthem first heard about the project two years ago during its final stages of pre-production, and we were instantly hooked by the film’s intriguing premise. Set against Shedd’s own foggy hometown of San Francisco, David Call plays Avery Wells, an alcoholic film editor whose life spirals to unimaginable places after witnessing the murder of his starlet sister Kate (Kelli Garner) outside a movie premiere afterparty. Endlessly unfocused despite trying to keep his addiction at bay, Avery can’t help but shake the feeling that maybe Kate’s murder wasn’t a random act of violence, but premeditated and far more sinister.
The third feature to come out of Shedd’s co-founded Flies Collective, Americana will make its world premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival on June 9th and its New York premiere at the Lower East Side Film Festival on June 14th. Frank Mosley and Jack Davenport also star.
Anthem reached out to Shedd to discuss his growing up with a location scout father, his love letter to San Francisco, and the complexities of spinning a narrative around an unreliable narrator.
The Seattle International Film Festival tickets here. The Lower East Side Film Festival tickets here.
Americana is your so-called love letter to San Francisco, so perhaps we can start from there. Whereabouts did you grow up in the city?
I grew up in the Excelsior District of San Francisco, which is the south end of the city. But I went to high school and was friends with kids from across town in the Haight, Richmond, and Pacific Heights neighborhoods so the film has a kind of mixed esthetic from those two versions of San Francisco: the row houses and telephone lines in my neighborhood and the clean, lush Victorian esthetic of the area around the Presidio. I’m a bit obsessed with locations as they relate to film.
I think there’s a stark difference between loving movies, as most of us do, and wanting to pursue it as a career. How did your love of film begin?
My father [Jonathan Shedd] is a location manager and scout in San Francisco and has been for about 35 years, so I spent a lot of time on commercial and film sets as a kid. He’s the guy that finds the places to shoot and permits, and then stands there and waits for the neighbors to get angry while production idiots like me break everything. He’s well-respected, and when I would show up on set, people would tell me how great my dad was at his job. So from an early age, I looked at the film industry as a means to work with people you like and work hard and be respected. That led to me wanting to go to NYU. Also, most of my summers growing up weren’t spent going to camp but getting $10 from my mom to rent and watch 3 movies a day. I’m well versed in late ’90s action-thrillers because of that. In all honesty, I probably saw it as a job before I saw it as a way to make art and had to kind of back into the cinema of it. NYU helped incredibly with that, specifically Rick Litvin and Peter Rea, professors there who reiterated that thinking about the production hurtles was second to writing strong characters. In any case, I think the type of exposure to production I had as a child, along with a borderline addiction to watching movies, cemented the idea that I could do this as a career. Then NYU taught me to look at film as a means to express things I couldn’t otherwise. I think I did it in a way that is the reverse for a lot of people: my mindset when it came to film was a “job” as a kid, before it became “art” or even “fun” as an adult.
How did Americana come about? Where did your idea for Avery Wells come from?
The simple answer is that alcoholism runs in my family and I’ve been around it a lot throughout my life. Avery is a reaction to that. I wanted to see what would happen if I put a realistic version of an alcoholic into a noir landscape. What would happen when a person whose only goal is drinking gets dropped into a situation where he is forced to engage? What happened, I think, is that he behaves in a lot of the same ways that a point-A to point-B protagonist in a thriller or a noir would, but point-B always leads back to alcohol. His mind turns point-B into drinking, or worse, the drinking turns point-B into something dangerous. So I found Avery, the character, as a means to add something personal to a plot line that I’d been toying with for a while, a plot line that didn’t involve addiction or alcoholism or its effects.
The most intriguing and saddest part of alcoholism to me is the isolation. It’s how a lot of people who struggle with sobriety will pull themselves out of society to be alone with their bottle. I wanted to explore a character who had done that for so long that the only thing he can trust is that the alcohol he’s drinking will make him drunk. It’s the only constant that needs to exist. Everything else is a distraction and a means to get people to leave you alone long enough to sneak a sip.
The slightly more straightforward answer to where the plot came from is that I wrote a script in 2006 when I was at the British Writers Guild program in London as my study abroad at NYU that was the very loose basis for Americana—very, very loose. It was about a guy whose job it was to fake the deaths of celebrities to make them more famous. I should still make that movie. But anyway, the very loose idea of a film’s star being killed to boost the hype of their film has been interesting to me for a while. My thesis short at NYU was based on the same idea and also had the title Americana. And as I rewrote the idea over the course of several years, I added more and more aspects of Avery’s alcoholism into the actual plot and it became what it is.
When did you start writing the screenplay and how different was it in the early stages?
I wrote the first draft of a script called Americana in 2006, so it’s been percolating for a while. It started as a straight up thriller about a man whose job it was to fake the deaths of celebrities to make them icons. Then it transitioned into focusing on the brother of that celebrity, and then focused itself from there once the idea of the protagonist being an alcoholic came in. Basically, murder and celebrity were there from the start and all the rest found its way in during the drafting process. Once I figured out who Avery was, the story wrapped itself around him and it became a completely new movie, one that made sense to make.
I’ve been following David Call’s work for some time now and I think he’s really great in this part. How did you guys come together? What made him stand out?
When we were about a year out from production, my collaborator Matt Petock showed me a short film called The Strange Ones that David is in, and the tone in David’s voice and his stillness really got me. He’s convincing as a degenerate—he’s not in real life, I promise—and intense in his performances. But the thing that stood out is that he’s incredible at playing people who may or may not have something to hide, which suited Avery. He plays emotional confusion or even ambiguity well, which I love in literature and film. Anyway, Matt knew Lauren Wolkstien, who was one of the directors on The Strange Ones, and Lauren introduced David. We hit it off and he was Avery from then on to me.
It appears that your pitch for Americana was to take an indie approach to the San Francisco thrillers of the ‘70s. To which films are you referring to in particular?
The films that influenced us the most on mood and esthetic levels were The Conversation, Petulia and All the President’s Men—long lensing, a dark and muted palette, composed frames, and still cameras in dialog scenes. Beyond that, I stole motifs from David Fincher’s The Game and Invasion of the Body Snatchers to round out our San Francisco thriller backbone. But then we had to say, “OK. Now we’re doing this for about 1% of the budget of some of those movies. How do we adapt?” The answer was to keep an insular world—and the aspect of a conspiracy theory—that lives within the head of one person instead of sprawling into the outside world.
Leading up this talk, I started thinking about Irwin Winkler’s The Net, an amazing paranoid thriller that’s partly set in San Francisco. In that film, we side with the protagonist from beginning to end. It’s obviously much more complicated with Avery in Americana. What did you find challenging about spinning a tale around an unreliable narrator?
The hardest part of creating a story around an unreliable narrator is having them reliable at first, or deciding if I want the audience to think he’s reliable at any point during the film. It’s definitely something I tried to get at in the script phase and honed a lot with Saela Davis, our editor. Wanting to have an audience care about the character when the goals of the character are purposefully vague due to his substance abuse was hands down the toughest part of editing this film. Walking the line between lying to an audience and tweaking their understanding of what they’ve been watching is a thin one. I don’t mind being lied to as an audience member, personally, if the reason I’m being lied to makes sense in the rules of the film. But with Avery, you have a guy who is very clearly, from the beginning, lying to himself about how OK he is, and he thinks that’s fine because the lies that he’s telling himself doesn’t affect anything besides his own well-being. On the surface when we start the film, he is isolated and therefore not a threat to anyone else. As the film progresses, we realize what Avery’s actions have affected in the lives of the people around him and that, to me, begins to change the way he chooses to remember those actions.
The correlation between the way we told the story and the character’s headspace here, for me, is that when your friend or family member is an addict or depressed or suicidal, a lot of the time the rationalization from them can be, “I’m not hurting anyone besides myself,” which I view as a cop out. This film is undoubtedly a reaction to my wrestling with that rationale. No one lives in a bubble and our personal opinions or actions mean different things to different people around us. Avery’s journey—the stop and start nature of it and the unreliable quality of his voice as a character—to me is sadly realistic, even if we are adding a glossy, genre-y sheet over his whole process. We took the idea of an unreliable narrator a step further and built the unreliability into the actual process of telling the story, the form of the film. It can be frustrating for people to watch undoubtedly because some audiences really want it to go in the direction they think it will go.
What’s your own proximity to addiction?
I have close family members who are alcoholics and I had a few formative moments in my childhood where I witnessed really severe alcoholism that rattled me. I’m coming off of two films as a producer directed by my colleagues Matt Petock and Dan Carbone, which are both odes to their respective youths. I unquestionably was informed by being around Matt and Dan as they decided what to make their first features about. Simply put, they made films about moments in their childhoods that shaped their understanding of the world and I think I’ve done the same, just wrapped in a slightly more genre package. I think anything you witness when you’re young that in the moment is shocking or new. In my case, it was seeing someone rehabilitating from severe alcohol poisoning that pops up later in life and colors your understanding of how human beings work. And then, you know, you make a movie about it.
I have an interesting relationship with alcohol. I drink—I think for the most part responsibly—but I am afraid of the potential for addiction in my genes. The film certainly doesn’t deal with that head on, but it does deal with having a person in your life who can’t control themselves or doesn’t realize they need to that comes from my experiences with my family and friends.
Americana is unhurried in unraveling its mysteries and I found the narrative surprisingly calm for the most part. But there are moments that sent a chill up my spine. Kate’s murder is abrupt and shocking. How did you see that playing out?
I really wanted the murder scene and every scene, really, with Kate and Avery interacting to play off of their disconnection from each other and show how far apart they’ve become as siblings. In other scenes, the two of them are separated by a wall or a person sitting between them or a TV screen that Kate is talking through. And in the case of the murder, the same thing is true: they’re separated by the length of the dome in the center of The Palace of Fine Arts. I knew I wanted Avery to be far away and viewing her in a full wide shot POV as she was killed because it was important that Avery couldn’t get there in time to do anything because, at least in that point in the film, we want the audience to believe that he’s never really been close enough to her to help. And when he gets too close, things go wrong.
In another sense, the murder is supposed to be expected. The atmosphere in the lead-up to that moment screams, “Someone is going to die in this scene,” and I like the idea that, even if you’re expecting it. It still comes out of nowhere.
Kelli Garner is so perfect because she so embodies what we normally think a movie star would look and feel like. Was this role easy or very difficult to cast?
The casting process for Kate took a lot of effort because she’s only in 6 scenes, but she’s the reason the events of the film are unfolding the way they do. And not only that, Kate is essentially 5 different people. She has a public, private, social, on-screen, and familial personality that all go in slightly different directions depending on who she’s with and she’s got about 8 minutes of screen time to do it all. So finding someone who could not only be the glamorous actress but the concerned sister and personify the memory that drives the film, it was tough. So when I watched Kelli in Lars and the Real Girl back-to-back with her in The Aviator, or her in something like Pan Am, she stuck out immediately as an actress who could be natural in any setting, in any type of film or with any type of character. Kelli was a really great fit for Kate because she understood that Kate is probably a pretty difficult person to be around and played her as such, with a twinge of something in the back of her eyes that makes you feel like she’s probably lying to you.
Going back to your dad: he’s a location manager who’s worked on major features like The Game, The Rock, Zodiac, and Milk, not to mention your very own Americana. Were you very into watching him work growing up? What was it like to work together on this feature?
I can say very simply that working with my dad on this was the greatest professional privilege I’ve ever had and will be hard-pressed to find another experience that lives up to it. It helps that he’s really fucking good at his job. He has a depth of knowledge of San Francisco and production that I could only hope to have. And when you show up in a city like San Francisco on a micro-budget feature—unless you have a location manager like him—you’re going to find yourself in the weeds very quickly. And I don’t know how to say this without just saying it: he reveled in the fact that I was his director. He was cautious about overstepping, and charmingly so, to the point where I had to remind him that I am actually a young, idiot director who needed to be told “No” sometimes. He’s been that guy for Woody Allen, Gus Van Sant, and David Fincher.
He also knows me better than most people. He knows what I respond to because we respond to the same esthetics in film. We like grand spaces. We like showing off the city. We like the neighborhood he moved to 35 years ago that I grew up in. So, that helped.
What did you find the most challenging to shoot on this film for whatever reason?
I think Lisa [Kjerulff], Matt and Dan would have all kinds of other things to say about what the biggest challenges of the shoot were but, for me, the balance of tone was absolutely the most difficult aspect of crafting this film. Because it’s a noir/thriller, my instinct was to direct the actors as such, and then we would pull a fast one and have one of the characters dig deep emotionally and it would betray the noir tone. Again, because Avery is someone who doesn’t quite belong in this world. It’s the type of film we set out to make: an ebb and flow between the Hollywood-noir vibe and the indie/introspective vibe. And it struck me very quickly that we were going to have to carefully slide into emotional moments and slide back into hard-boiled noir several times in the film. It’s an “over easy” noir. I can’t bring myself to say “soft-boiled” noir with a straight face. But seriously, putting a character like Avery who’s introspective and at times deeply emotional into a world that begs for monotone readings and intense straight-ahead eyes creates a necessity for balance. Finding that balance can be very difficult.
Oh, and shooting in cars. I hate, hate, shooting in cars.
We don’t want to spoil anything here, but the way you incorporated the Tuesday Noon Siren into the narrative was so clever. Do you remember hearing the siren for the first time?
Yeah, thanks. The Tuesday Siren is so distinct to San Francisco and so built into the soundscape of the city that I’m surprised it’s never popped up in a film —that I can remember, I’d love to be wrong. It’s so cinematic to me, this thing the entire city hears every week and pays almost no attention to even though it can be overwhelming, depending on how close you are to a speaker. It’s such an obvious excuse for a metaphor to me: this test warning could, maybe, I don’t know, be a real warning. It’s an easy thing to incorporate into a metaphor for red herrings and it was a fun thing to play with. I was also very aware of story time and what day of the week it was during any given scene so we could make that work.
What can you tell me about Flies Collective? How did you guys come together?
Matt, Dan and I have worked together for about 8 years, which makes me feel old. Dan and I were roommates at NYU and he and Matt were friends, and when we left college, Matt got on the make-a-feature train quicker than most people we knew. At that time, a year or so out of school, the idea of making a feature was a goal that seemed less than achievable to most people, including myself. I’ve always been really impressed that Matt was able to say, “We’re dumb enough to go do this now, so let’s go do it.” He brought Dan on to shoot it and brought me onto AD, and in the process of prepping, I become a producer on that first film, A Little Closer. After that film, through the combination of really liking working together on features and the ability to make a living through commercial work, we made the decision to keep working together an obvious one. We’re hovering around 5 features now, including the ones in post and prep.
It’s an amazing thing to be able to work with close friends and I feel really lucky to have been a part of the class that I was in at NYU, to be able to work with friends who are as talented as Matt and Dan, not to mention Lisa or the Foster Brothers or Saela Davis or the dozens of other people who we went to school with who we continue to work with. Flies, for me, both as a commercial entity and a feature film company, exists because of the honesty-in-critique that comes with friendship and the comfort of the day-to-day working environment. It’s the professional equivalent of a support group.
Where are you now with your second feature? What are you looking to explore?
I’m in the middle of a science fiction script loosely based on some articles I’ve read—and some short form commercial stuff I’ve produced—that digs into what machine learning will be capable of soon. The idea of machine as immigrant or machine as “other” is something I’m very interested in, and I’m trying to take those familiar science fiction tropes and pop them into a world similar to what we built in Americana. But, yeah, sci-fi noir is where I’m headed.