“The New Tenants” is a 21-minute, low budget, independent film that recently won an Academy Award. The movie is derived from the tiny screenplay of Anders Thomas Jensen and is adapted by lead actor and writer, David Rakoff. The director is an outsider, named Joachim Back. This is Back’s first film. In many ways “The New Tenants” resembles a Theatre of the Absurd play. The plot couldn’t be more simple or surreal. The primary action takes place in a tiny studio apartment where Frank (David Rakoff) and his partner Peter (Jamie Harrold), are its most recent new tenants. Surrounded by boxes, they soon experience the quintessential moving day from Hell, when unwanted guests ranging from a little old lady to a deranged drug dealer, inflict themselves upon the quarrelling couple. The “guests” then proceed to slaughter each other before the couple’s very eyes in a way that is simultaneously horrific and hilarious. Despite the blackness and despair of death, Frank and Peter somehow manage to rekindle their romance and waltz over the bodies into the moonlit night. Is this film a ridiculous farce? Yes and no. As long as there are people in the world, anything and everything is possible.
I recently caught up with director Joachim Back, screenwriter/actor David Rakoff and editor Russell Icke by telephone. In the interview that follows we discuss the creation of “The New Tenants” and the film’s fascinating journey to the Oscars.
Conversation with Joachim Back:
Hi Joachim. Can you tell us what provoked your black comedy about destruction and death?
It’s something I think about— living in this world. Eventually, everyone will end up in a box so we need to find humor in this.
Can you speak about placing your characters in NYC and how this city meshes with their state of mind?
Frank is passive-aggressive like many New Yorkers I’ve met. He talks about the world, but this is more an excuse to smoke-himself-to-death than actually do something to change the world. I tried to balance Frank and Peter’s not so great relationship against this city of constant change. They remind me of some of my own tenants— the complainer and non-complainer.
NYC can be a wonderful but dangerous place.
I think that New York is the picture of what the world should be. You can go through 20 countries in 200 steps in NY.
Dave and I said if you go somewhere and everything is terrible we should just push this concept to the limit. If you dare to go to a place where tragedy is everywhere, it’s bound to be funny! Think of a WC Fields comedy, where he goes to the very limits—yet it’s so absurd you must laugh.
I moved to New York from Denmark and love the place! I wanted to give New Yorkers back their own story. I like people-films best of all. By making this type of film, viewers can reflect upon their own lives.
Does language equal death in your film?
Yes, language and looks! The looks—the eyes, can say 1000 words. This type of storytelling comes from my commercials.
Can you talk about some of your eclectic characters?
Sure [laughs]! I wanted to create a well-spoken dope dealer with short-term memory lapses. The actors all have their own unique personalities and appearance and I just stayed with these and let them emerge. I prefer to leave people alone and let them look like and be themselves—like Grandma (Helen Hanft) for exampIe. I lay close to a person’s roots and add just a little.
Irene reminded me of Audrey Hepburn. I tried to find an Upper East Side ballet dancer who had a raw, bony edge and European look. Liane Balaban was perfect!
Did anything in your own background influence your attraction to this story and do you consider yourself political?
Yes. As a child, I saw that the world was not so lovely. Relationships— people at war, etc. The grown up world I experienced was a disaster. Am I political? Maybe. I wanted to make one big mural of the world in this short film. I tried to put the madness and poetry of the world within the death and violence.
Do you believe tragedy and violence can lead to good?
I believe that anyone who wishes to change must go through violent tragedy. It must be that dramatic to change your philosophy. So I gave these characters the worst day ever and their outlook on life, and for each other, changed.
What was the significance of the recipe for Cinnamon Buns at the end?
Well remember, Grandma says that Cinnamon Buns are what keep Irene and her together. It was also sort of a joke. I got so tired of everyone arguing about the credits so I just placed the recipe there to show that if you just stick to a plan— a recipe, life is simple.
Is another film on the horizon—a feature, perhaps?
We would love to make a feature next and are working through some new ideas. But it will take great discipline to find this type of magic again. It may take time.
Conversation with David Rakoff:
David, can you tell us a little about yourself and what it was like to adapt the screenplay for “The New Tenants”?
Well, I’m primarily a magazine, book and radio writer. Writing the screenplay was not the least bit arduous– but fun!
How did you meet Joachim and begin the project of adapting Anders Thomas Jensen’s script?
I made a short film with another Park Pictures director, Alison MacLean. The movie was called “Intolerable.” Joachim saw the film and that’s how I got on his radar. I never met Anders Thomas Jensen personally. Joachim brought me Jensen’s 7-page script and I adapted the screenplay. When Joachim brought me the script, he told me that he thought we could do something with it. Jensen’s script had all the mechanics of plot and contained the general bones of the story, including some dialogue.
The plot twists are so lovely, so clever that it seems like you’ve seen them in other films. I’m thinking especially of of Adam Davidson’s, “Lunch Date” that also won an Oscar.
Can you speak about Frank’s monologue and what it was like to enact?
The opening monologue was so incredible and so much fun to speak. It just grew longer and longer and longer—a dream role!
And like I said, the plot was already laid out in Jensen’s short script and I found the embellishment easy. Also, the stakes were incredibly low. We were all good friends at that point, so there was no pressure whatsoever—just an exercise among friends. My adaptation went through 7 drafts and eventually became a 20- page screenplay and the 21-minute film, The New Tenants. It was great fun to do.
Conversation with Russell Icke:
Hi Russell. Can you tell us how you came to be a film editor?
My father was an art director at a well known agency. I always thought I’d be involved in his business someday but didn’t know quite how. I started as a runner for a production company called Limelight Films. Then I assisted an editor and fell in love with editing. After that I was fortunate enough to work for Whitehouse and began cutting commercials.
How did you meet Joachim?
I met Joachim because we were recommended to each other to make a couple of commercials for Royal Bank of Scotland. We hit it off immediately. Then he sent me the screenplay and I loved it. I never thought it would all come together but it did.
In what form did you receive the footage and what was your initial approach to this project?
Joachim sent me raw footage and rushes. In the beginning we had a long distance relationship—me in London, Joachim in NY— but then we met about 4 times to flesh out the film.
The footage was in Beta files that I then loaded into Avid. It was a pretty straight- forward edit. I worked from the script, which was very descriptive. My greatest challenge was in the opening shot that was de-contextualized and unconventional. Usually you open with a wide shot to provide context but this was just the opposite.
I loved the slow reveal of Frank!
Yes, me too! I thought it was strong and even when he was revealed you still didn’t know where you were. I love that mystery!
Your edit reminded me of Hitchcock’s edit in “Rope.”
I’m very much influenced by Hitchcock! He was far ahead of his time.
I read that Rope had approximately 4 cuts that were completely camouflaged to look like none.
Yes, Hitchcock wanted to shoot the film without any cuts but this was impossible. My philosophy is, Why cut away if the scene works? I tried to hold back on a character for as long as I could.
Your edit makes us feel trapped in the apartment room!
That’s great! As you know, it’s very difficult to film 2 or 3 characters in a room. I wanted to create a claustrophobic situation and I think it worked. Of course the editing was easy because the director and actors did such great jobs.
I imagine you had to go through a lot of footage. Was it hard to cut the film down?
It was very difficult to cut the film down to 21 minutes. There was so much footage to get through! Again, Joachim was helpful in that area, and between the both of us, I think we succeeded.
The edit feels natural.
Thank you. I’m glad you feel this way! I tried very hard to cut in such a way— to make a natural statement.
Have you edited any recent features?
Yes. Last year I completed Madonna’s film.
Do the critics influence your work?
Critics can certainly go either way [laughs]. Reviews are so subjective. At this point, I trust my own taste and try not to be distracted by critics. I just do my work and they do theirs.
“The New Tenants” was recently shown at Tribeca, and may soon be seen at the Malibu and Sydney Film Festivals.
Posted on May 3, 2010 in Interviews by Amy R. Handler
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