Thursday, May 6, 2010

Interview: 0s & 1s Director Eugene Kotlyarenko

The Maryland Film Festival goes down this weekend in Baltimore. While this is primarily a music blog, we're always eager to explore how music shapes other forms of art. This year's film festival features all kinds of aural-related ongoings, but one film premiere stood out in particular.

0s and 1s is a film by California's Eugene Kotlyarenko. The film is shot entirely within computer operating systems, and is fueled by a killer soundtrack that ranges from Ariel Pink to No Age. I recently had the privilege of chatting with Eugene, who offered a rare glimpse inside the creative mind behind such a unique work.

Brett: Tell us about 0s and 1s.

Eugene: 0s and 1s is a big idea, with a classic narrative. Semi-relatable, flawed, anti-hero type loses his computer; tries to figure out who stole it and how to get it back. It is the simplest form of episodic story, like The Odyssey or the picaresque of Don Quixote. Something archetypal. But obviously the flipside of that coin is that 0s and 1s is also a code; a code that has come to rule our lives. Most of us don't know how the binary system works (including me), yet it is the operational language that takes up a good chunk of our emotional and physical energy. Making a movie right now that explores a computer interface is like making a movie about rail travel in 1902. I mean, did you know 20% of all films in the first 10 years of moviemaking, were just a camera on the edge of a moving train. Watching that footage was undeniably gripping. They were really into that, they understood how everything was moving all of a sudden, all over - the image and the machine of transport both chugging away and completely changing everyone's reality, every second. It would be completely fucked not to acknowledge something like that.

How did the idea behind the film come about?

Well if you stare at anything long enough or you use a certain system long enough repeatedly it really does rewire the way your brain works. With that acknowledgment, I think a person with expressive inclinations naturally reflects on all sorts of brain-changing, life-altering phenomena, whether it be social, political or personal. And so I wanted to reflect on that. But not just in an observational way that showed how the characters' behavior was affected by our computer lives, but to actually integrate that rewiring into the way the story was told and received. I'm trying to utilize this radical mental shift incubating in many of us and say that a story can and should be told differently to address it or exploit it. All of a sudden our brains are looking for a new set of cues and clues to help it figure things out and the movie is just attempting to be a narrative manifestation of that urge.

I mean I still can't believe everyone isn't trying to make movies like this. It seems so obvious to me that all our lives are being completely altered. To not even attempt to include that in the storytelling mechanism seems willfully blind or harmfully conservative or something. I mean this idea has been brewing in me for a long time - I made a short version of 0s & 1s about 5 years ago that only my friends have seen - but yeah it's been percolating and growing and I didn't feel comfortable pursuing anything else until I tried to slay this.

How many hours a day do you spend at your computer?

Well when I have an opportunity to work on the movie and am not on some 9-5 or 6-8 job, I end up spending sooo much time on the computer, like 15-20 hours - just overseeing shots, and working on the cut and giving feedback to the amazing artists who work on the project, and trying to figure out ways to promote this unfinished beast, and I used to update our Tumblr a lot. I basically fall asleep on the couch next to the computer right after I've kicked off a render and just sort of naturally wake up two minutes before the 5-hour render is over. I become a slave to the completion of the movie (which is beautiful) and consequently a slave to the computer which facilitates that (which is horrible).

How do you think today's electronic media and networking shape our social interactions?

I mean they essentially make everything easier. They make being funnier easier and they make being a creep easier. And actually the fine line between being funny and being creepy becomes really razor-thin on the net...basically, better make sure you send the right cock shot. You can get obsessed if you're a romantic or disgusted if you are a rager, or just feel a sense of virtual connection. I mean I remember how cool it felt when I was in 9th grade to do a bit of searching and find out all of a sudden there was a Yahoo group with 18 members, who all liked beat happening...just like me. WOW! I mean now, in our post-MySpace, Facebook times, that sort of "unbelievable connection" is a joke, to the point where I can be righteously spiteful towards the complete obsolescence of obscurity, but when you're 13 in the suburbs...that Beat Happening Yahoo! Group is fucking inspiring.

Tell us about the "language" you created for 0s and 1s.

It's the language we're all used to: instant messages, cellphone texts, some Super Mario here, some Doom there, a powerpoint presentation, a search engine, some twittering, some social profiles, a game of solitaire, bunch of gifs, some in-the-know know these day to day experiential and linguistic blocks that inundate us, fly into our ears and spew out our souls as we surf through our lives.

Is the avant garde style that this film is presented in represented in your choice of music for the soundtrack?

Well, I think the musicians are just as relevant and dynamic as the concept is accessible. You might think this movie is confusing at a surface glance, but it's pretty damn easy to watch once you sit down and take a real look at it. And similarly, I wouldn't go so far as to call the musicians avant-garde, but they are definitely intelligent, boundary-pushing, crafty as hell songwriters. I mean this is music that sounds good and that a lot of people can and should be listening to - and they only aren't because maybe they are not exposed to it.

When I originally chose many of the tracks two years ago, a lot of the bands were a bit more obscure on a national scale - No Age right before Nouns, or Dum Dum Girls or Wavves when neither of them had more than a song on their MySpace, or Ariel Pink (whose music has been popular in certain circles for a while, but has recently gotten a lot of exposure in his downtime, as a godfather figure) - and have since become slightly more prominent across the country. The fact that a lot of these bands are now known nationally, ultimately speaks to the quality of the music to break through and is simultaneously a reflection on the lag time it takes for people to catch up with non-NYC local music exports.

Who will we hear on the soundtrack? Why were these artists chosen?

Originally I wanted to put just my straight up favorite current musicians in the movie, so was gonna contact Cause Co-Motion, Fiery Furnaces, Girls, Ponytail, Tyvek, Nodzzz, Ariel Pink. But then I realized the movie was sort of lacking a strong sense of LA-ness to it and I thought if we kept the soundtrack strictly LA it could add that energy, if even just on a conceptual awareness level. So I limited it to musicians from LA or who made the chosen songs when they lived in LA. And so you have bands that helped grow The Smell (all-ages LA Venue) scene like No Age, Abe Vigoda, Mika Miko, The Mae-Shi, Foot Village. And some neo-folk/country musicians like Graham Forrest, Whispering Pines and the Chapin Sisters. Then people who I'd never heard before but discovered from hours of MySpace searching in late 2008, like Wounded Lion and DumDum Girls. And lastly just great musicians I'm lucky to be friends with like Brock Potucek, Celia Rae Hollander, Jon Mandabach -- super prolific people who don't play regularly and don't release stuff, but have lots of amazing recordings.

You told me that music is one of the most important elements of the film, how does music help shape this story?

Well one of the main characters, Cole, is a musician and he gets in there with his logic and reality. But beyond that, the conceptual basis for me is how the rise of the personal, never-ending soundtrack has been synonymous with rise of the internet and personal computing. People are always listening to music while doing everything else on a computer, and so I just wanted to reflect that. In some ways, this really isn't how music is used in movies - these songs are not expressly for big moments, montages or intricate visual sequences (although we did use them in these manners on occasion). The music is threaded through from beginning to end. I think there are only 4 or 5 scenes in the entire film without a song playing in the background. Obviously, I picked songs I loved that I thought worked for the energy or emotion of the scene, but the main idea is to just keep the reality of being inside the operating system going and that meant incessant music.

Do you think the "failing" music industry is in any way credited to electronic media?

I mean, I remember Napster. It's just funny to think this peer-to-peer facilitator program, essentially run BY THE PEOPLE, the ones who who write "Crimson and Clover" by the Velvet Underground and "Stuck in the Middle With You" by Bob Dylan, really did take down the multi-billion dollar brainwashed-sound industry, but it happened. Such a powerful centralized cultural force completely replaced by a gelatinous sound zoo. Is it good? Maybe yes. Maybe no. Depends who you are and if you can hustle.

What records are frequenting your turntable right now?

Gotta be honest, don't wanna be addicted to stuff like coffee, cigarettes, pills or buying records. If I get it goin' anyone of those could easily become an addiction. So I try not to do things like buy drugs or a coffee maker or a record player.

That being said, at the beginning of the year, I went through these shoeboxes of tapes that my friend gave me, that were his uncles. Most of the tapes are like AcidJazz/FreeJazz, but a few are just classic shit, like Stones, Bowie, etc. One was labeled Spacemen3/SonicBoom, i put it on and it blew me away. I must've listened to Playing with Fire 100 times in January. And I just think Sonic Boom is a genius. "How Does it Feel" kills me. I was really intrigued to hear that he produced the new MGMT album -- they're not really my thing, but I wanna check that to see where he fits in.

The other album is actually The Beach House album. Was obsessed with that the first few months of 2010 too. So beautiful. So right on. Luckily, I was videotaping Abe Vigoda in the studio recently and got to hang out with Baltimore native, Chris Coady, who also produced Teen Dream. I asked him a bunch of questions about the Beach House experience that made me appreciate the album even more.

And I gotta admit, of course I checked into that Ariel Pink leak. The new album, like all of his stuff, hits immediately, groovingly. And then on top of that it starts to grow inside you. Grow like a snake. Like a snake in that classic cellphone game Snake.

0s & 1s is screening this Saturday at 5pm and Sunday at 11:30am at the Charles Theatre.


pimplywimp said...

i play cole in 0s & 1s. it was a phenomenal experience. it's true eugene had a box of tapes he'd always be playing. i hope the film's soundtrack gets a release, the film too obviously. i enjoyed the interview very much. knowing eugene is fun. thanks!!!!

Brett said...

hey Ryan!

the film was really fantastic, I had so much fun watching it. let's make sure that soundtrack makes it to cassette!

pimplywimp said...

yes! on cassette haha