By Don Simpson | January 28, 2013
Henry (Brian McGuire) is addicted to collecting audio recordings of conversations no matter if they are albums from the 1950s or conversations clandestinely recorded on his portable recorder. This is all research and practice because Henry strives to record the perfect conversation. Enter Charlie (Sonja Kinski), an attractive, young, voyeuristic photographer who is excited by the possibility of creating audio recordings with Henry. They begin to play make believe, recording improvised conversations together. Sometimes they develop new characters for their role playing, other times they attempt to mimic various people they have met. To further their “research,” they begin to engage unsuspecting strangers, secretly recording the resulting conversations. Charlie and Henry essentially approach their lives as if performing a series of acting roles, attempting to achieve a greater level of realism by pretending they are someone else.
Writer-director J.R. Hughto’s cinematic chamber piece questions the authenticity of our selves, specifically what we say. Are we all just playing roles in this world? Do we sometimes adopt false personas in order to fit into certain situations? Do we sometimes over-think (mentally rehearse) what we are going to say? Do we, like Henry, strive to have the perfect conversation? (Check out my 8 out of 10 review of Diamond on Vinyl.)
Before we sat down to chat with J.R. Hughto at Slamdance Headquarters to discuss the intricate layers of meta-narrative within Diamond on Vinyl, we dutifully scripted out all of our questions and rehearsed for hours on end in the mirror of our Park City condo. (We can only assume that Hughto approached his side of the conversation in the same responsible manner.) Whether or not our constant striving for oratory perfection was achieved during this interview is for you to judge… Enjoy!
Don Simpson: What did you have in mind when you were initially pairing together Sonja Kinski and Brian McGuire?
J.R. Hughto: The script can be read as really cold. During a lot of the early readings, people were expressing concerned that we were spending so much time with people we didn’t like very much. I kept saying that I would address that in casting. I wanted to cast actors who would bring in empathy, so the audience would open up to them. Even though they are doing questionable — sometimes bad — things, the audience would still find reasons to like them. I didn’t have a particular look in mind for any of the characters, that was not a thing. Sure we had to match the age ranges, but otherwise I wasn’t interested in body type, any of that; I just wanted actors who would bring life to these characters.
Brian is an amazing comedian and comic actor. What he brought physically to the first audition, it really opened up his character. These characters are so closed off that there need to be other things — like body language — that allow them to open up. Brian walked out of the audition and I started doing a dance. We didn’t even bring anyone else for call-backs. I didn’t tell Brian he was cast before the call-backs, but I figured he kind of knew because there was no one else there.
With Sonja, she came in for the part of Rose originally. She was the very last audition on the last day. She has this magic that was causing the other people who were reading the scenes with her to keep switching roles and dropping lines. She just has this amazing ability to both put you at ease but also make you very self-conscious. She has that energy that you can’t look away from. We gave her ten pages to read for the character of Charlie, then we gave her the whole script and told her that call-backs were the next day. When Sonja came in to read with Brian, we knew right away that was it. For me it was a little intimidating initiating, but Sonja is really down to earth — most people who associate her name with her family (daughter of Nastassja Kinski, granddaughter of Klaus Kinski) would not expect that.
DS: What was more important to you: character development or the written dialogue in the script?
JRH: The birth of the script was really the characters. I started with all of the themes that I wanted to explore, in terms of mediation, voyeurism, identity and the roles that we play with each other. But the main thing that I was interested in was the characters; that each character had a complete world that they were coming from, that they have very strong desires and reasons for their decisions. Even for a character like Brian (Kiff VandenHeuvel), I needed to know his story: he is from New York; he just got divorced; he has kids; he just moved to L.A. because of work; he is incredibly lonely; he works at night; he has to reach out in some way for companionship. We might think on the surface that he’s a John, that’s horrible; but then we find ways to show that he’s not a horrible person, he’s just incredibly lonely and at a very bad moment in his life.
For me I feel like a lot of the dialogue was improvised, but if you ask Brian he says that none of it was. The script was very tight, and it really had to be because all of the repetition and how scenes build. For the most part, though, I didn’t really care about the lines, I cared about the beats. If you compare the scenes with the shooting script, the bones are in the script but what makes the scenes really come alive is what the actors added to those moments. A lot of that came about because we spent so much time learning about who these characters were, really richly; so when the actors went off-book and improvised, they were still very clear about their characters’ positions and motivations, so everything felt authentic.
DS: As the film’s writer-director, you take a very passive perspective and refrain from casting moral judgment about these characters and their situations; but I am curious for you as a person if are there characters whom you respect or hate more than others?
JRH: The funny thing for me is that when I started this script it was very clear about which characters I hated. That was one of the early challenges. There were a number of things going on, maybe not in my life in particular, but around me. There were a lot of very horrible break-ups within my friend group coming out of graduate school. There were a lot of dark things that I was seeing. I was very angry with Los Angeles. I started interviewing people about what was going on in their lives. I interviewed a friend of mine who was one of the early Suicide Girls about why and how she became involved in that. I went from a place with the characters, specifically Henry who I was very angry with, to really gaining a better understanding about what was happening with his situation. Then I started to fall in love with the characters, so the trick was to convince the audience to like the characters, even though they are in a particularly dark moment in their lives.
DS: When did the visual elements of the film — specifically the composition and framing of the shots — come into play?
JRH: Cinematographer Ki Jin Kim and I worked a lot together on that during the three months leading up to the shoot. We would show each other movies that we were thinking about, go back and forth with different scene diagrams, but ultimately the primary aspect of the film is the performance. Based on that, we really had to develop a means to — during a twelve day shoot — not have a lot of down time. The crew would set everything for the day’s location, and then everything could stay that way; we could move the camera wherever we wanted without having to re-set. It was very critical that everything revolved around getting the performances, everything else was secondary, really.
So thinking about films like Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (1998) and the Dardenne Brothers’ The Son (2002), that develop a certain cinematic language — especially in The Son where a lot of the thriller elements come not from the plot but from what is shown and when it is being shown; so we see the protagonist react to a lot of things that we don’t see. So that started us thinking about how we could set up a world in which we could work within our resources but also make something very bold. In terms of shooting dark and letting things blow out, Kim and I — as well as Norbert Shieh (camera operator) — were just sort of daring each other. We already knew that we were going to try to push things stylistically as far as we could, then in the moment we would go even further.
DS: Where did the theme of scripting and rehearsing conversations come from?
JRH: It came from a couple of different places. It is really about this idea that we are living at a moment that we have instant mediation — via Twitter, Facebook, etc. — where we are constantly presenting to the world condensed snippets of our thoughts and opinions that are all very filtered and curated. We want people to think that we are happy when we are not. It is not a bad thing that we do, but it is something that many of us do. I do it all the time. I am unhappy but I am going to smile anyway. Pushing that further in terms of — when you say something that you shouldn’t have said, then you relive it and think through it. Then keep pushing that out even further, but keep a certain strength behind it, where the characters go from a place that might be more average or something we all do and make it into something that is exceptional. I wanted to find the boundaries, then go just beyond that, but to where we can still see the boundary, and then contemplate what it might mean to go that far out. Ultimately, at the end of the day, we all practice what we are going to say and rehash things that we said or should have said. Beth has that moment at the end of the film in which she almost breaks down, but then she collects her composure. She is doing the same thing that Henry and Charlie are doing, but she does it in a way that we consider normal.
DS: What prompted the idea of pairing together an audio voyeur (Henry) with a visual voyeur (Charlie)?
JRH: One of the huge moments of genesis for the film was that my wife was teaching some young high school kids a summer film class. One of hers students came in and was really upset because her family had found some risque photos that she had posted on MySpace. She didn’t understand why it was such a big deal. So there was this idea about mediation and the breakdown of what is public and what is private. What was once intimate and private has now become public — what does that do to intimacy? That can happen both visually and orally. Then, part of it was what do we tell other people? So part of the recording thing was a way to get at the way we regulate what information we permit others to hear.
This also served as a cinematic way to break open internal, shut-off characters; so sound became a way to open up these characters while dispensing most of the expository dialogue. From an experimental narrative perspective, I wanted people to see things in multiple ways. The film can play linearly but then you can start to question the linearity. Am I seeing this scene as it is happening the first time or has this already happened? Are we sure that this is the right scene order? The same way that I didn’t want to judge characters, I wanted to present a narrative that appears to be linear and let people question that.
DS: And you play with the limits of audio by matching previously recorded dialogue with scenes that are playing out in the presumed “present.”
JRH: The very last night of our shoot, we shot the final scene between Charlie and Henry. We had never really discussed the scene, but we had done all of the blocking and camera movements. Brian and Sonja came on set and said “you know, we’ve said a lot of these lines before.” Then Sonja said, “and how does he know what to say when I say this?” And I responded, “you’ve actually said all of these lines before.” We never really discussed as a cast the various levels of the narrative. We were so focused on character development that I didn’t want to muddy the water with the meta-narrative. That was my playhouse, but it didn’t need to be the actors’ playhouse. So that was a fun moment on the final night that it came out that we’ve been doing all of these crazy things during the whole shoot. It was always there, but we were so focused on the details. That is also why this film is this weird hybrid of tightly scripted improv. Lines have to match, but because of the jump cut strategy and the repetition within scenes, it allowed us to stay very true to the script but also go way out of bounds.