Shortly after making its premiere at the 2017 LA Film Festival, I had the opportunity to speak exclusively with Christian Papierniak, who directed the new movie “Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town” – and who was also a former professor of mine when I attended Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts as an undergrad.
We spoke about his current full-time job – directing video games motion-capture scenes–, casting Mackenzie Davis as his riot grrrl lead, and what needs to change in the film industry.
It’s good to talk to you again. It’s been a few years.
Yep, a few years, absolutely. Under my tutelage.
You just premiered your directorial debut, “Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town” at LA Film Festival. How was the premiere?
It was chaotic, in a good way.
It was certainly a packed house.
Packed house, it was chaotic, without a doubt. I mean, you were there. You saw the first, or the fifteen minutes leading up to the movie actually rolling was just, chaos. And there were people everywhere, you know? There were no seats, and people thought they had seats and people lost seats… my parents had to sit in the front row. They told me that they turned away almost two hundred people.
So you know, that was what we wanted. We wanted it to turn into like a rock concert. That’s kind of what the movie’s all about, so we wanted it to be that kind of feel.
Your more recent projects as a director are with video games, specifically the NBA 2K franchise. What goes into directing that?
In a video game, the difference is we’re rendering every single angle, every conceivable, possible angle, at every second, because when you shoot motion capture, you just have actors in suits with cameras capturing their face. They wear a helmet that has a camera that kind of sticks out away from their face and captures their facial movement at the same time. And there are hundreds of cameras all around the room. And it’s a big white room, there’s nothing sexy or fancy about it, and the actors act very much like they would in a play.
So, it’s a little bit different because, in a movie, you can do a pickup. But in a video game, you have to commit to one four. And that’s it. Every other take has to get dumped because there’s too much information. The computers can’t handle that much rendering to keep multiple takes. And so it’s expensive for all that storage.
What do you think are the qualities in video game directing that map over the best to making a film?
Just to be clear, the stuff I do in NBA 2K is not guys dunking and guys dribbling. You know, I do do some of that, but what we do is a fully immersive story where you create your own player. It’s called “My Career” and you navigate your NBA life. It’s a sort of choose-your-own adventure.
Because there’s no camera work, and you do the editing all in retrospect with the animators, the emphasis is all on acting. Your focus is one-thousand percent on the acting purely and the movement of the characters with each other. In that way it’s totally freeing because you have to think about nothing else besides, Is what they’re doing truthful or genuine or authentic, or whatever. You don’t have to worry about like, Oh did that dolly shot also work? Or, Did that crane shot also time out at the right time, did we lose focus?
[Izzy] is a mess, she’s a punk, she’s all this stuff, so the movie kind of had to have that thing, and yeah, it was great because it was that complete sort of “anti-video game” thing.
Was going from a controlled environment of the video game setting to a looser, grittier style something you were looking forward to making as your first feature film?
Yeah, that was what we wanted. We wanted to make something that looked like a nineties indie movie. It had to be that thing, it had to be rough at certain points and it had to be a little bit, almost like, purposefully not slick. We wanted the style of the movie to represent who the character is. [Izzy] is a mess, she’s a punk, she’s all this stuff, so the movie kind of had to have that thing, and yeah, it was great because it was that complete sort of “anti-video game” thing. This was pure old school film-making, running around shooting stuff.
And the difference between NBA 2K is that gigantic franchise. I’m honored to be somebody who is a shepherd of this part of the game but in terms of my personal authorship, I don’t have that on the game. “Izzy” is something that I wrote, so I have a personal connection to the material… that’s what independent film is for.
At the LA Film Festival, you said that you got the idea for this movie from an image of a girl in a bloody tuxedo. How did the story follow?
When I write, I usually start with a character. I just kick characters around in my mind. Different ideas, different visual concepts, just different things. About ten or fifteen years ago, this idea just stuck in my head of this girl in a bloody tux. A bloody white tux. And I just saw this image of her sitting in the back of a taxi cab, and I was like, Well that seems interesting – like, How do I then create a story around that?
I always kind of had the idea for “Izzy Get the F*ck Across Town” in my head but I got busy with so much other stuff and didn’t have a chance to loop back around to it. I also had some short stories that I wrote during that time frame as well that never really went anywhere. I just had them on my computer and thought, Oh you know, wouldn’t it be interesting, if I took some pieces from those short stories and put it in with this girl in this bloody tux.
I am from San Francisco, so I am Izzy. I was the transplant that knew nothing about LA, that was like, “Where the fuck am I? Where do I go? What is Los Feliz?”
You were saying that this was a road movie, as it takes place from the beach cities of Mar Vista to East LA. Are you from Los Angeles?
I am not, I am from San Francisco, so I am Izzy. I was the transplant that knew nothing about LA, that was like, Where the fuck am I? Where do I go? What is Los Feliz? There’s a joke [in the film] that’s only people in LA will get, where she struggles with the name Los Feliz – she’s like, Los Feliz? “No, it’s Los Feliz.”
There were some people I was sitting next to that must have felt compelled to correct the character’s mispronunciation, as I heard them mutter to themselves exactly what you said during that part.
Yeah, that’s what we do in Los Angeles. It’s like, No you’re not from here unless you understand that we’ve mangled these words. And we’re going to correct you to mangle them like us.
But yeah, I’m totally Izzy, I’m totally the person that came here sort of broke, just trying to make my way. LA’s a very difficult, confusing place if you have no money and you have to get from point A to point B, and that point B is far away. It may only say ten miles on the map, but that ten miles might as well be an ocean away.
Can you talk about Mackenzie Davis’ involvement? She slips into the role so effortlessly, it’s almost like the part was written for her.
What you’re saying is the ultimate compliment to [Mackenzie] in terms of like, if you walk out of the movie feeling, Oh, this role is written for this person. That means they took so much personal authorship over the role that you can’t separate the person from any other… there’s no choice in your mind where you’re like, Oh, this would have been interesting if so–and–so would’ve played it. No – you’re like, Mackenzie definitely had to play this.
Mackenzie’s one of those actors that doesn’t take a second off. She’s present in every second of every scene. And that extends to all her work, not just this one movie. And that’s something that I’ve always respected about her before I even knew her.
In indie film, you’re looking for the person who’s about to break out, somebody that needs, or wants to play the lead in a movie. It is a good opportunity for somebody that’s sort of on the verge of a breakout, which Mackenzie is, I mean, now she’s got “Blade Runner (2049)” and all that, so she’s gonna break out big. So that’s what I was really looking for, somebody who can take on that sort of challenge.
What I really always respected about them, about Corin [Tucker], Carrie [Brownstein] and Sleater-Kinney in general, is that they embodied that idea of being true to themselves.
Our casting director had a relationship with Mackenzie’s manager, so it was easy and quick to get her the script. Within twenty-four hours she had read it and said I want to get in on a Skype call. So, Mackenzie and I got on a Skype call, hit it off right away. And from the beginning, she was like, I want to be a producer on this movie. From the beginning, she just jumped in, didn’t want to change the script. Isn’t trying to meddle with anything. She loves the script as-is, so much so that she becomes like super protective of it and doesn’t want anybody else to fuck with it either.
I know that the music is something personal for you. You have Corin Tucker and Heavens to Betsy to name a few…
Yes, good question, I will talk about this all day so stop me if I go too far!
When I was really young, a friend of mine gave me this Heavens to Betsy tape and he was like, Just check it out, it’s really cool, you’re going to like it. And I just fucking loved that thing. I wore that tape out til like it exploded. It was something that was always so influential to me. And then when Heavens to Betsy merged into what became Sleater-Kinney, I just absolutely loved them as well. There’s always a Sleater-Kinney CD in my car.
Once you get into the sort of Riot Grrrl part of it, it’s really just about a love for that music itself. What I really always respected about them, about Corin [Tucker], Carrie [Brownstein] and Sleater-Kinney in general, is that they embodied that idea of being true to themselves. And they never sold out, they always stayed honest to their belief system, and they never tried to commercialize themselves in some way that would poison the idea of what was at the heart of the band.
It’s not in your face, [Izzy’s] not talking about being a Riot Grrl or any of that kind of stuff. It’s like background subtextual layers. And part of that subtext is making sure that the song that they sing in the movie is an authentic song of that era. I wanted this song “Axeman” cause I just love that song and I thought it was so perfect for the movie. So, we were like let’s just try to get in touch with Corin Tucker. And so we did, we got in touch with her and she immediately got what we were trying to do, she completely understood the story, she completely understood the intent that we were going for, and she was like, That sounds great, I want to be apart of it. We’re like, Ok, great! Well, we have no money…
She became a partner in the movie, so we gave her percentage of the backend. And then she gave us not only the rights to cover the song, but the original song (her version) is also in the movie. She’s just been a great advocate for the movie. When we showed her parts of the movie that her pieces are in, she wrote me a letter saying how touched and honored she was. I got really emotional, it was really nice.
The script has to be great because there are a lot of people out there with scripts. And there are a lot of people out there with scripts that have money, and so you have to have a script that’s great, and that people want to be in.
Izzy has a line in the movie that the movies “aren’t even like ‘the movies’ anymore.” What’s your take on the current state of movies nowadays?
The schism and the gap have gotten so big, there’s just gigantic movies and there are small movies. And there are so many small movies that the audience gets overwhelmed with choice.
I have relatives all around the country who want to see great stuff but they don’t know how to get to it, and they’re frustrated with big blockbuster movies because they’re just not that good. Of course every once and a while there’s a good one, but for the most part, they’re not very good. I mean, Marvel does a great job with all their “Avengers” stuff, but by and large they’re not good, so how does an audience member find the right stuff?
I don’t know if there’s an answer to any of it. But for myself, I’m fortunate enough that I have another job that pays me good money and that I love. So I’m not relying whole-hog on my next indie film. I would certainly like to, if they came along and said, Hey, do you want to make the next “King Kong 2” for a few million dollars?, you’re hard-pressed to say no to that. The next thing I want to do is a genre- a detective movie because it’s my favorite genre. I’d put my own spin on it with a female lead of course, and do something a little bit rockstar-y, punk, and just try to tap that genre from a different angle.
In some ways, I think “Izzy” is counter-programming to a lot of indie films. It’s a little bit more of a fun movie than most indie films are, and I think we’ve lost some of that. We need more fun indie films instead of always something dramatic.
I was a student of yours in your Visual Storytelling class, is there anything you’d like to share with your students after having made your first feature film?
I think the thing I’ve learned from the beginning, ever since I stepped into the business, is that you have to have a good script. The script has to be great because there are a lot of people out there with scripts. And there are a lot of people out there with scripts that have money, and so you have to have a script that’s great, and that people want to be in. That’s really what it comes down to. And I think people kind of get a little ahead of themselves, try to get a movie going with a script that’s not fully finished, or they don’t really completely believe in themselves, and that’s problematic. I think you have to write something, read it and go, “You know what, yeah, I one-hundred percent believe in every part of this script.” Because if it goes out into the world and it gets rejected, then you at least say to yourself, Oh hey, I did my best. And that’s all you can do.
If you don’t do your best, which a lot of people do sadly, and you just try to get something made, you don’t get the results. Because you’re going to be asking people to pay, to work for no money, compared to working on a TV series or a bigger feature, so you have to say, What’s attractive to an actor? I wrote a part that I cared a lot about, but I also knew it would be very attractive to a young female up-and-coming actor, because it’s a meaty part that they often won’t be offered by a studio movie or a TV show, sadly enough.
So, even though [an indie film] is for a little bit of money, and a couple weeks to shoot, they really get to act. Actors want to act in things they think are going to be good. So you can use that to your advantage, but you have to have a script that is meaningful.
“Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town is currently not rated and is awaiting distribution.