SXSW FILM 2013
By Don Simpson | March 24, 2013
As the title suggests, Swim Little Fish Swim is about the importance of giving loved ones the freedom and support to do what they want to do. The more Lilas (Lola Bessis) and Leeward (Dustin Guy Defa) are held back, the more they rebel; the more they rebel, the more frictional the relationships with their loved ones become. Regardless, writers-directors Lola Bessis and Ruben Amar thankfully do not make Lilas and Leeward out to be artistic martyrs. Instead, they are equally at fault for refusing to take the advice of others out of sheer stubbornness.
The intimately observational perspective and the wandering randomness of the scenarios lends the film a naturalistic-yet-surrealist vibe; additionally, experimental filmmaker Nathan Punwar contributes stunning Super 8 video footage that is artfully sprinkled throughout the narrative. Equally influenced by New York independent filmmakers of the 1970s and French New Wave directors of the 1960s, Bessis and Amar develop a unique cinematic language that is both gorgeously stylistic and intensely dramatic. Then, in a perfect mesh of sound and vision, Toys and Tiny Instruments provides a soundtrack that works perfectly for Leeward’s persona.
By immersing themselves in the independent film community in New York, Bessis and Amar clearly thrive off of the creativity and experimentation that is going on around them. They also bring an outsider perspective into the mix, as Swim Little Fish Swim is a novel view of New York City from a European vantage point. It is as if we are observing New York through Leeward’s looking glass, not as a bustling metropolis of commerce but as a colorful playground propagated by absurd personalities. This strange, hyper-real view of the city makes Swim Little Fish Swim one of those special little films that is utterly impossible not to fall in love with.
Shortly after one of their SXSW screenings, I had the chance to talk with Lola Bessis, Ruben Amar and Brooke Bloom about this unique and special film that they created.
Don Simpson: Swim Little Fish Swim has a strong message about Capitalism versus art, can you talk about that?
Ruben Amar: It came from different things, like the way we were suffering when we were trying to make a movie and find a producer. We saw so many people trying to make what was in their hearts.
Lola Bessis: We were working on other scripts before writing this one. Those were harder to produce and would have required a lot more money to make them. We were struggling and we knew it could take five years to make any of those films, so we felt the urge to shoot something immediately. I think its always a huge fight for an artist to have enough money to make their projects. Our families are kind of Communists too, so we in turn are like that too.
DS: During your Q&A, you mentioned that the dialogue was improvised. What was that process like?
LB: All of the dialogue was created by the actors. It wasn’t improvised on set, but during the rehearsals we did a lot of workshops with them. After the workshops we wrote the dialogue accordingly.
RA: We provided them with background stories, like the history of their relationship. We tried to think about it together with the actors, because we didn’t know exactly what it should be.
Brooke Bloom: During the workshops, Lola and Ruben had a lot of ideas about who our characters were. There was an outline of each scene with what needed to be accomplished. So then Dustin and I would improvise off of that and the script was written from those workshops. Then, when we got the script, Dustin and I were like “we never said that!” We felt really alienated by what we had supposedly improvised. It is hard to recreate an improvisation, instead of just re-improvising.
LB: It might be easier for us as directors for our next movie to let our actors improvise on set, but for this film we really wanted everything to be prepared ahead of time.
RA: The lack of time made this very stressful for us.
BB: There was also a language barrier. I mean, you both speak English very well, but there is a naturalism or slang that you were depending on your actors to provide. You also had these things that you wanted to fit into the script. I think it was a mutually beneficial relationship but also sometimes tense.
LB: The fact that we are co-directing was another reason we had to prepare everything in advance, because we didn’t want to disagree on set. So we needed to work everything out ahead of time.
BB: They had to prepare to fight with us. [Laughs]
DS: Can you talk about the design of Mary and Leeward’s apartment, specifically the feeling of timelessness that it creates?
LB: Our idea was that the apartment had belonged to Leeward’s family for a long time.
RA: It was his way to escape the system.
LB: This was the apartment that we were living in while we were in New York, but it wasn’t the same design at all.
RA: We had to live there one month before shooting, and it felt very real living in the same world as the characters. It was a very strange experience.
DS: How was Lillas’ experimental film developed?
LB: We met this great artist, a director, at the Sarasota Film Festival. He had a short film playing there, and we had our short film playing there. His name is Nathan Punwar. He makes these great videos, so…
RA: We worked with him a lot, explaining what type of film Lillas would be making. It was quite difficult because it had to be good, but not very mature.
LB: Since she was capturing everything on her own, we wanted to keep it very simple.
RA: It had to be a film that wouldn’t be good enough to be accepted into the P.S. 1.
LB: As a subtext, this film is Lillas’ way to capture people’s unconscious feelings. Nathan did a great job with it and captured that very well.
DS: How long were you living in New York City before you started working on Swim Little Fish Swim?
LB: Five months, maybe?
RA: And during that time we had an issue with our visas, so we had to go back to Europe then come back to New York again. As soon as we came back to the U.S. we knew we had to make a movie right away, because we didn’t know if we could only stay for one day or five months.
LB: Americans really don’t want French people in their country, trust me. That was really hard. We had five months to do everything — the writing and the shooting.
DS: What originally brought you to New York City?
LB: I was studying in New York. I was finishing my studies at NYU and the New School.
RA: I had made two short films and then I met Lola, and we decided to write something together. So we moved to Israel and made a short film there. Then we moved to New York.
LB: We moved to New York not only to make films but also to just experience something new for inspiration. The good thing about being a writer is that you are free to work wherever you want, and we wanted to be in New York because we found it to be very inspiring.
DS: How did Brooke Bloom and Dustin Guy Defa become parts of this project?
LB: When we contacted Brooke, we already had the first draft of the treatment. That draft was basically the beginning of the film, but it was much longer and there were more subplots. At that point, Shiraz had her own subplot in the film, but then we rewrote it because it made the film much too long. Casting Leeward was very hard because we couldn’t think of anybody who fit the part because it was such a complex character. We had met Dustin at a party but we didn’t know if he would want to act. We thought he would be great for the part, so we asked him and he was really into it. For Brooke it was much easier because we had seen her in Gaby on the Roof in July, so we already knew that we wanted to work with her.
DS: How has the New York independent film community influenced you as filmmakers?
RA: Nothing like this exists in France.
LB: We were writing some very heavy scripts but we really wanted to shoot something. At first we were just going to make a film with the two of us interacting with real people. The plot was very simple. It was about a girl who was fighting to get her visa. That wasn’t really meant to be a film, it was just going to be for fun. Then we started seeing all of these great independent movies and realized that these movies were being made with no money. That’s when we knew that we could make a real movie.
DS: Do you think something like this could exist in France?
RA: I think there is a beginning of something happening there now, but distribution is impossible.
LB: There are some independent movies being made.
RA: But there is no room for more than ten, even just five, of these movies.
LB: The Color Wheel by Alex Ross Perry was released in Paris and I think it was more successful there than in the U.S.
DS: He seems to be really influenced by French cinema, especially the New Wave, so that makes perfect sense to me.
BB: There is a whole crop of American independent filmmakers which will hopefully now in turn influence French filmmakers…this whole beautiful, reciprocal thing.
RA: That was the case in the 1960s, but then it stopped for so long.
LB: It becomes really difficult in France because there is so much more money for films. That actually makes it harder because the money is not so easy to get, and it takes a lot of time to get into the system to get those grants. Most of the young filmmakers in France may take five to seven years to make their first feature.